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It may be somewhat suicidal for an attorney who spends much of his time in federal court to argue against a proposed salary hike for federal judges that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recommended in his Jan. 1 report to Congress. However, Rehnquist’s proposal brings into focus the issue of public service vs. private sector parity, for which there is little or no public debate. Federal trial judges earn $145,100 annually; appellate judges earn $153,900 per year. These are healthy salaries. And there is a bit more here than meets the eye. Federal judges also have law clerks who are attorneys to assist them. They have good office staffs, and excellent medical and pension benefits. There also is an excellent “senior status” (semi-retirement) plan, whereby a retired judge can continue to work at a reduced caseload. Apart from job and pay security — they have life tenure — federal judges receive great respect and prestige in our system of government and, as the recent election demonstrated, have enormous power, even to the extent of deciding whom the president will be. Rehnquist’s argument is that the salaries of federal judges should get closer to what the jurists would earn in private practice; he mentions $500,000 per year as a salary that a judge might command in the private sector. I am of the view that attorneys’ salaries in big firms are obscenely high, and that, in any respect, so long as federal judges make a comfortable living compared to the rest of us, they should view their jobs as a public service. If they wish to make more money, they have the option of returning to the private sector. There is no logic to the argument that taxpayers should reimburse them for what they would make if they were not judges. We don’t accept that argument for other public servant positions. Why accept it for the judiciary? There is a groundless assumption at play here: Higher pay attracts better judges. No one has ever offered a shred of evidence for this startling proposition. Does that mean that higher-paid lawyers are better attorneys? Nothing in our history supports that premise. I personally know scores of highly competent and dedicated lawyers all across the country, many of them already in public service and many of whom would make excellent judges, who draw salaries in the range of $40,000 to $60,000. These lawyers may even have a greater sense of the day-to-day struggles of common people than do attorneys from the large, politically powerful, silk-stocking firms. Yet, Rehnquist is not talking about these good, dedicated and decent public servants; he is talking about maintaining a legal system — oligarchy, if you will — that is elitist. Nowhere in Rehnquist’s report does he even offer a plea to increase funds for legal services programs for poor and low-income people who are critically underserved. Nor does Rehnquist mention funding to establish pro bono programs to encourage and organize wealthy lawyers to provide more community service themselves. And, of course, the chief justice makes scant mention of providing funds to help shore up the country’s abysmal public defender system. One wonders, when reading Rehnquist’s report, whether he really even has thought about looking after the American court system as a whole and trying to improve it so that it delivers better and more equal justice. One is left with the idea that he has only two goals in mind: expand the number of federal judges and augment their salaries. Until the chief justice of the country and Congress focus on improving the legal system of all people, we should leave the salaries of federal judges where they are, increasing annually according to the cost of living — just like for the rest of us. Being a federal judge is a great honor and a public service, not an occupation in which judges should get paid according to what they might earn if they were in private practice. A sense of public purpose will do more to improve our legal system than raising the salaries of those who already earn more than anyone else in the system. James C. Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, an Austin-based nonprofit firm that litigates only civil rights issues.

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