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Rehnquist calls for full funding of federal courts

By William Mears

Rehnquist mentions
Rehnquist mentions "underlying problems" in the judicial nomination process.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing "rising caseloads, too many judicial vacancies, and too few authorized judgeships," Chief Justice William Rehnquist is calling on Congress and the White House to work together to fully fund the federal judiciary.

In his annual report on the federal courts released Wednesday, Rehnquist said years of political wrangling over funding has led to severe shortages of staff in the face of a rising caseload.

"I am concerned about the effect of the current budget impasse on the courts and reiterate my request that Congress extricate the judiciary by promptly passing a full-year appropriation that addresses the needs of the federal courts," Rehnquist said.

In his role as chief justice, Rehnquist heads the Judicial Conference, a congressionally created panel of senior judges who oversee the workings of U.S. courts, from budgets and staff to technology and training.

Rehnquist said there is an urgency to fill court vacancies. The Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed 100 of President Bush's judicial nominees in the last Congress, but 60 vacancies and 31 nominations are pending.

Bush and Republican leaders criticized Democrats over the pace of confirmations, but Democrats countered that many of the candidates offered by the White House have been too conservative and warranted closer scrutiny of their judicial records.

Without offering specifics, Rehnquist mentioned "underlying problems" in the nomination process, and made a veiled reference to the political scene in Washington in calling for the White House to nominate "qualified candidates" and for the Senate to confirm or reject them promptly.

"With the same party now controlling the White House and the Senate, some think the crisis has passed and that the confirmation process does not need to be fixed," he said. "Be that as it may, there will come a time when this is not the case and the judiciary will again suffer the delays of a drawn-out confirmation process."

Most pressing issue

start quoteInadequate compensation seriously compromises the judicial independence fostered by life tenure. end quote
-- Chief Justice William Rehnquist

Rehnquist saved his sharpest rhetoric for what he called "the most pressing issue today" -- pay for federal judges. The chief justice has been passionately outspoken about the issue for more than a decade, and he said bringing up the issue repeatedly is like "beating a dead horse."

The report said more than 70 high-level federal judges resigned from 1990 to 2002, a sharp increase from previous years, and Rehnquist said financial considerations were a big factor. He said the salary issue remains so severe that judges could be forced to leave the bench for private practice.

"Inadequate compensation seriously compromises the judicial independence fostered by life tenure," he said.

The minimum salary for a federal judge is around $150,000 a year.

Rehnquist also is pushing for an increase in the number of judges, particularly at the federal appeals level, one step below the Supreme Court. Citing an ever-increasing workload, he wants 10 additional judgeships.

Rehnquist noted legal filings at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, have increased by 115 percent since 1984, but no new appeals judges have been added nationwide since that time.

Rehnquist said the problem is just as serious at the federal district and bankruptcy court levels.

Congress in November added 15 District Court seats, and Bush has indicated he will nominate judges to fill two spots on the prestigious appeals court for the District of Columbia that have long been vacant. Some Senate Republicans contend those seats do not need to be filled because the caseload does not justify it.

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