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With the encouragement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, two bar groups on Tuesday launched a campaign to persuade Congress to raise the salaries of federal judges. Representatives of the American Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association came to the Supreme Court to present Rehnquist with a report detailing how judges’ buying power has eroded over the years. The groups called for a 9.6 percent pay raise to account for what the judges see as five missed cost-of-living increases granted to other government employees since 1993. The raise for nearly 1,700 judges across the federal courts would total about $22 million. The bar report echoes what Rehnquist has asked lawmakers to do for years: Restore the lost COLAs, break the link between judicial salaries and those of federal lawmakers, and establish a regular review process for salaries of all senior government employees. “It’s essential to do something to turn this thing around,” said Rehnquist. “We have to be able to retain and attract highly qualified men and women” to the bench. Judges established by Article III of the Constitution can stay on the bench for life and continue to earn their full salary even after retiring. District judges earn $145,100 a year; circuit judges earn $153,900; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $178,300; and the chief justice makes $186,300. While those wages are significantly higher than the average, Rehnquist and the legal groups point out that attorneys in the private sector — in some cases ones right out of law school — make well more than judges. Moreover, the ABA/FBA report states that since 1993, the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, has increased 25.5 percent, while judges’ salaries have increased just 12.1 percent. Pay erosion, said ABA president Martha Barnett, is “chilling the enthusiasm of some of [the qualified] lawyers to go on the bench and stay on the bench.” The report says 52 judges left their posts in the 1990s — compared with five in the 1960s — but it’s not clear how many left specifically because they were offered higher-paying jobs in the private sector. Judges and their supporters have pointed to several factors that they think may help their efforts. For the first time in six years, Congress and the White House hail from the same party, easing friction between the two branches. Also, Congress recently doubled the president’s salary to $400,000, meaning that other government salaries could be increased without bumping up too close to that of the chief executive. Timed with the report, Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., introduced a bill that would give the judges a 9.6 percent raise. The bill would also repeal a 1982 law that requires Congress to specifically vote to grant the judges a raise. That law is the focus of a lawsuit against the government pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The plaintiffs are judges who claim that the 1982 law was superseded by a 1989 law automatically giving judges raises anytime that rank-and-file government employees got cost of living increases. The government contends the 1982 law still applies. The case, Williams v. United States, was argued last summer.

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