This Washington Post editorial addresses the heavily supported issue of raising the pay of federal judges. For those who haven’t followed this too closely, perhaps because it had little consequence on their pocketbook, this is the basic idea:
Under the Senate bill, which calls for 29 percent raises, trial judges’ salaries would increase to $218,000; appeals judges would earn $231,100; Supreme Court associate justices, $267,900; and the chief justice, $279,900. Judges would continue to enjoy extraordinarily generous pensions, and they would be entitled to automatic annual cost-of-living raises. Similar legislation has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee.
While a 29% raise seems pretty generous, it has to be viewed in context. This fact sheet purports to show how real income for the federal judiciary has fared over the years. Granted, it contains some dubious claims, but the general point is well taken: Judges are no less worthy of being able to support themselves than anyone else, and it is unbecoming to compensate federal judges at a level roughly equivalent to a first year Biglaw associates (before bonus).
But Congress, being Congress, can’t stop itself from demanding a giveback. There’s no free lunch in the Senate.
The biggest hit comes in the form of limits to the amount of outside income judges may earn and restrictions on reimbursements for educational seminars. Under the Senate bill, judges can be reimbursed for expenses related to a seminar “a significant purpose of which is the education” of judges if the event is sponsored by bar associations, judicial associations or the judicial division of the American Bar Association. The purpose of this amendment is to stop judges from accepting thousands of dollars worth of transportation, lodging and food from interest groups that hold “seminars” to push their legal and ideological agendas to a captive audience.
While proponents of junkets speak to judges’ reimbursement for those “pure” trips, to the ABA conferences and law school moot court competitions, most people give little thought to the “dirty” junkets where the judges’ “expenses” are paid by interest groups or corporations.
Clearly, there is a vast difference between a judge (or a justice) accepting reimbursement for a lecture at HLS and a “conference” in Anguilla on the merits of private-purpose eminent domain.
The move to prohibit these junkets is long overdue, but it may have unintended consequences. Judges may accept no more than a $2,000 reimbursement per event or $20,000 annually for attending approved educational seminars, speaking engagements, or teaching opportunities. As the Judicial Conference of the United States noted in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, such caps could “severely and unnecessarily restrict judges from traveling to law schools for lectures, conferences and moot courts.”
It strikes me that there is no reason to limit reimbursement at all, provided the purpose are “pure”. On the other hand, I fail to understand why any member of the federal judiciary should be permitted to accept “reimbursement” in any amount from any interest group or corporation. If the purpose of the junket conflicts with their duty to remain neutral, then there is no amount of money that appropriately limits this inherent violation of their oath.
The Washington Post concludes that Congress should increase the caps for appropriate junkets, as opposed to inappropriate ones. This strikes me as simply wrong. Congress should impose no cap for appropriate junkets, and tolerate no inappropriate ones. It is not acceptable that federal judges be just a little bit dirty.