Senate panel votes to raise federal judges' pay

After staving off an bid to reduce the size of a pay hike, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved and sent to the floor a bill to raise the pay of federal judges by 32 percent.

Voting 10-7 to pass the bill (S. 1683), the panel granted judges from district, appellate and the Supreme Court fatter pay checks due on the first pay day after the law goes into effect, assuming that the Senate -- as the House has done -- approves the legislation and the president signs it.

Both House and Senate versions of the bill call for the same pay increases. District court judges' salaries would go from $165,200 to $218,000; appeals court jurists would rise from $175,000 to $231,000, and Supreme Court associate justices would go up from $203,000 to $267,900. The chief justice's salary would go from $212,000 to $279,000.

Like the House bill, the Senate measure also changes the pension schedule for federal judges, requiring that they have a combination of age and service amounting to 84 years in order to earn a full pension -- which is equal to their full pay at the time of retirement.

In the course of debating the bill, the committee turned back an attempt by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., by a 13-4 margin, to halve the amount of the pay raise to 16.5 percent. District judges, for example, would have gotten $197,300 a year instead of $218,000, under Durbin's amendment; the high court's chief justice would have gotten $253,000 instead of $279,000.

Among other points, Durbin contended that departures of federal judges from the bench were few, despite Chief Justice John Roberts' plea that judicial salaries -- which have not been raised since 1991 -- were threatening a constitutional crisis by spawning an exodus of seasoned jurists from their posts. "Only 36 have resigned in 23 years," Durbin said. "This so-called exodus from the federal bench is not a constitutional crisis, it's normal attrition." He also said that judges, assuming they meet the age-plus-longevity milestone, are the only ones in federal service entitled to full pay at retirement - without having to contribute a dollar of their own to the pension plan.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., countered that judges' salaries should be fixed in the context of remuneration in the legal profession, and took issue with Durbin's numbers of resignees. Her own inquiry, she said, indicated that since 1990, 63 judges have resigned, 20 more have stepped down to take other federal jobs, and 24 left early before qualifying for a pension.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pointed out that the House has approved a similar bill and ventured the opinion that if the legislation failed in this session, it might take several more years to get the pay raise enacted.

The committee also adopted an amendment by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., by a 10-9 vote, that would limit the amount federal judges could be reimbursed for expenses in connection with privately funded events outside their jobs. Exceptions would be made for events sponsored by bar associations, judicial associations, the National Judicial College and a federal, state or local government. For any other event financed by a private party, the reimbursement limit would be $2,000 per trip, with a yearly aggregate of $20,000.

A second degree amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to exempt public and private universities from the reimbursement limits was defeated, on party lines, by a 10-9 margin.

Feingold accepted with objection an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, which clarifies that judges could travel abroad, under U.S. State Department sponsorship, to help other countries develop their legal systems and to promote the rule of law.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., won adoption by voice vote of an amendment to bar judges from accepting the gift of an honorary membership amounting in value to more than $50.

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