We’ve had our disagreements with the ABA, in particular with inappropriate policy positions the Association has taken on issues that have divided their membership. (MassTortDefense has high hopes for the leadership of incoming President Steve Zack, an outstanding lawyer from Florida.)
But here is one position we heartily endorse. The American Bar Association is urging the Supreme Court to take a suit brought by a group of current and former federal judges who are seeking cost-of-living salary raises. Beer, et al. v. United States, No. 09-1395 (U.S. S.Ct.). The judges are seeking back pay and declaratory relief because they never received the cost-of-living salary increases that they are entitled to under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.
The American Bar Association last week filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to rule in Beer vs. U.S. on whether Congressional denial of cost-of-living salary adjustments for federal judges compromises judicial independence, violating the Constitution. Although the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 was intended to establish automatic annual COLAs for federal judges, Congress has refused to authorize these “non-discretionary” raises six times, notes the ABA brief. While inflation-adjusted wages for the average American worker have risen 19.5 percent since 1969, salaries for federal district judges have dropped by 27 percent over the same period. Judicial pay is now so low as to seriously compromise the independence that life tenure was intended to ensure and may becoming insufficient to attract and retain well-qualified jurists from diverse economic and societal backgrounds, argues the ABA. In many cases, former judicial law clerks earn more in salary and bonuses in their first year in private practice than the federal judges for whom they clerked.
While judges know about this pay scale when they answer the call of public service, they certainly could not anticipate that Congress would steadily erode that pay in real terms by repeatedly
failing over the years to provide even cost-of-living increases.