Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Outside Court, Roberts Hears Dissent; Critics Deride Fear of 'Constitutional Crisis' Over Judicial Pay

Outside Court, Roberts Hears Dissent
Critics Deride Fear of 'Constitutional Crisis' Over Judicial Pay
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. usually knows just the right thing to say, his star turn during his 2005 Senate confirmation hearings being Exhibit A.

But maybe not so with the blandly titled "2006 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary," issued, as he noted, on the typically slow news day of Jan. 1. He should rest assured that it has been noticed -- and roundly razzed by some in the legal punditry and that segment of the citizenry that likes to write angry letters to the editor and leave sputtering rants on the answering machines of reporters who write about the court.

Roberts devoted his entire address to the call for a pay raise for federal judges, a subject that he noted was not new, and one -- he didn't note this -- that might never be terribly popular with those who make less than $165,200 a year, which is what federal district judges and members of Congress make (Roberts's salary is $212,000).

There are plenty of people who agree with Roberts that judicial salaries should rise to attract and retain the brightest in the legal field. But his description of the issue as a "constitutional crisis" was too much for some.

"What should we say about a Chief Justice who suggests that it is a 'constitutional crisis' if Congress takes advantage of its constitutional prerogatives to refuse to raise the salaries of federal judges?" University of Texas law professor Sanford V. Levinson asked on the legal blog Balkinization. "As it happens, I agree with him that pay raises are long overdue, but not necessarily for members of the US Supreme Court, frankly, who have cushy jobs and are treated like kings and queens."

Matthew J. Franck chimed in on National Review Online: "According to the chief, things are bad enough that we have a 'constitutional crisis that threatens to undermine the strength and independence of the federal judiciary.' In a word: balderdash."

Nor did Roberts endear himself to public-interest lawyers, public defenders, prosecutors and other lower-paid government lawyers with his worry that the judiciary not become restricted to the independently wealthy or "people for whom the judicial salary represents a pay increase." They stopped reading before they got to "Do not get me wrong -- there are very good judges in both of those categories.''

Still, not everyone reacted critically. The New York Times endorsed his plea, although its editorial said it was "tempting to dismiss as hyperbole the chief justice's characterization of this issue as a 'constitutional crisis.' "

More important, incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) signaled his quick assent, saying, "I intend again to do what I can to convince Congress to fairly evaluate this issue and the chief's arguments, so that we can see what solutions may be possible."