Automakers were not the only ones left empty-handed at the end of last week's lame-duck session of Congress. The federal judiciary's long quest for salary increases made little progress -- though hope remains that the post-Thanksgiving session will bring some results.
"We continue to work daily with the leadership to rectify this problem the judiciary confronts," says James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. The Judiciary Committees in both houses had endorsed increases earlier in the session, but budget constraints and, most recently, the financial meltdown, have made further progress tough. In fact the only change in judges' benefits that passed into law in the current Congress, which we reported on here, was a ban on judges receiving honorary club memberships valued at more than $50.
Judges are walking a difficult line, not wanting to appear selfish when the populace at large is suffering, but their pay has lagged for years. "While many Americans are struggling financially today, few of us have jobs where we are routinely skipped over for even a routine cost of living increase and get no clear guidance on what we will earn in the year ahead," says H. Thomas Wells Jr., president of the American Bar Association, which has fought for judicial pay increases for years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the roughly 29 per cent pay raise for Article III judges included in the bills before Congress would cost taxpayers about $131 million in the first year -- not much, compared to what the corner bank is receiving.
For seven of the last 14 years, judges have not even gotten a cost-of-living increase, and if the current session ends without even that two-to-three per cent adjustment, judges will be disappointed to say the least. Unlike with other federal employees, judges get a COLA only if Congress affirmatively approves one. The Senate approved it by unanimous consent on Nov. 20, but there was no action in the House.