U.S. district judges make less than newly minted lawyers at many of New Jersey’s top law firms and it’s time they got a meaningful pay raise, according to federal lawyers at those same top firms.

The Association of the Federal Bar of the State of New Jersey adopted a resolution on Aug. 1 asking Congress to pass the Federal Judicial Salary Restoration Act, S. 1638, which would increase for all U.S. judges.

And the association president, Jeffrey Greenbaum, says the bill should go even further by being amended to tie future pay raises to those given to federal workers.

The association joins a chorus of bar groups, including the American Bar Association, urging Congress to act before the federal bench loses more judges to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

District court judges now make $165,200; magistrate judges earn $151,984.

“It’s an insult” for federal judges to watch their law clerks make more as first-year associates than they do as experienced federal judges, says Greenbaum, of Newark’s Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross. Federal appeals judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court $203,000; and the chief justice $212,100.

S. 1638 proposes raising the pay for magistrates to $234,600; district court judges to $247,800; appeals judges to $262,700; associate justices to $304,500; and the chief justice to $318,200.

Judges have not had a salary increase since 1990, and magistrate judges since 1991, though both groups have been given cost-of-living increases.

Greenbaum says the pay has had deleterious effects on the federal bench in New Jersey. Since 2001, seven Article III judges and three magistrate judges have resigned or retired. All 10 left for private practice. The district has 17 slots for district judges, 10 for magistrate judges.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said in his year-end report last December that inadequate pay “threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary.”

He said the 678 full-time district judges are paid about half the salaries of deans and senior law professors at top schools. Two decades ago, judges made as much as 50 percent more than top academics and administrators.

Roberts stated that, adjusting for inflation, the average U.S. worker’s wages have risen 17.8 percent since 1969, while federal judicial pay has declined 23.9 percent.

In the past six years, more than 40 judges across the nation have left the federal bench.

Given its bipartisan support, the pay-hike legislation is expected to move out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its future past that point is less clear.

Pay was an issue for U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Hedges when he ended his 21 years on the bench on March 31 to become of counsel to Nixon Peabody in New York. His main reason: “utterly inadequate” pay.

But the last straw for Hedges came in January when a cost-of-living adjustment failed to materialize, one of six such unmet promises in 14 years.

Greenbaum says the resignations and retirements lead to a loss of experience on the bench. In addition to Hedges, the following jurists left in the past five years because of pay issues:

� U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Rosen left in September 2006 after 18 years and joined Montgomery McCracken in Cherry Hill.

� U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Donald Haneke left in 2005 after 22 years for Red Bank’s Drazin & Warshaw.

� U.S. District Judge Alfred Lechner left the bench in 2002 after 15 years to become at partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius in Princeton; he later became in-house counsel at Tyco and left for Lerner, David, Littenberg, Krumholz & Mentlik in Westfield in 2006.

� U.S. District Judge Stephen Orlofsky left the bench in 2003 after eight years to join Blank Rome in Cherry Hill.

The district has lost other judges in the past six years, though they did not give salary as the reason:

� U.S. District Judge Alfred Wolin left the bench in 2004 after 17 years, for Newark’s Saiber Schlesinger Satz & Goldstein in Newark.

� U.S. District Chief Judge John Bissell left the bench in 2005 after 23 years to head up the alternative dispute resolution program at Connell Foley in Roseland.

� U.S. District Judge John Lifland retired in May after 19 years and joined JAMS of New York, a provider of mediation and arbitration services.

� U.S. District Judge Nicholas Politan retired in 2001 after 14 years, and started his own arbitration and mediation service.

� U.S. District Judge William Bassler retired in 2006 after 16 years and joined JAMS in New York.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, as head of a federal commission that looked at pay in public jobs, has recommended that district court judges make $261,300. That is the amount they would be earning if their pay had been adjusted for inflation since 1969.