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Roberts urges pay raises for judges

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington

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John Roberts
Supreme Court
Judiciary (system of justice)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chief Justice John Roberts picked up where his late predecessor had left off, declaring in his first year-end report that the problem of pay for judges "has gotten worse, not better."

The remarks came in a nine-page assessment of the federal judiciary, a tradition for chief justices begun 30 years ago.

Roberts, who took over leadership of the high court in late September, used strong language to urge Congress to boost judicial salaries. He called current pay levels "a direct threat to judicial independence."

"Every time a judge leaves the bench for a higher-paying job, the independence fostered by life tenure is weakened," wrote Roberts. "Every time a potential nominee refuses to be considered, the pool of candidates from which judges are selected narrows."

Roberts said that even an immediate 30-percent raise would, after inflation, return them only to what they were making in 1969.

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, District Court judges will earn $162,500 in 2006, the same as members of Congress, and Circuit Court judges will earn $175,100.

While noting that Congress must juggle other budget concerns, Roberts said that his predecessor, William Rehnquist, pushed the issue aggressively for two decades. Rehnquist died in September after 33 years on the high court, 19 of them as chief justice.

The new chief noted that, in a 2002 year-end report, Rehnquist said Congress' lack of action on the issue made him feel like he was "beating a dead horse."

Since 1990, 92 federal judges have left the bench, 59 of them going into private practice, where they are typically able to command higher salaries.

The departures are increasing. In the past five years, 37 federal judges have moved on, nine during the last year alone. In the same time period, the overall federal caseload has increased, especially bankruptcy filings.

In other issues, Roberts focused on court security, noting that a U.S. District Court judge's husband was murdered in February by an angry litigant. A month later, an Atlanta inmate was accused of a shooting spree that left a judge, a court reporter and a deputy dead in a county courtroom.

"These attacks underscored the need for all branches of government, state and federal, to improve safety and security for judges and judicial employees, both within and outside courthouses," wrote the chief justice.

And Roberts urged the executive branch to give the judiciary a break on a little-known issue that he said was busting their budgets: rent. The chief justice noted the General Services Administration, which manages federal property used by other agencies, charged the federal courts $926 million in the last fiscal year, but the cost of providing the office space was only $426 million.

About 16 percent of the federal courts' budget went to the GSA for rent, compared to 3 percent for the Justice Department. U.S. courts figures show the executive branch spent less than two-thirds of one-percent of its budget on GSA rent.

"The federal judiciary cannot continue to serve as a profit center for GSA," concluded Roberts.

Roberts was mindful that he has been chief justice for little more than three months, and said he hoped he did not appear presumptuous by stating his views on the judiciary so soon after taking charge.

"It remains for me very much a time for listening rather than speaking," he said.

As chief justice, Roberts has responsibility to lead not only the nine-member court and its approximately 300 employees, but also administrative oversight over the entire federal court system.

The 50-year-old was first nominated in July to fill the still the pending vacancy of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. After Rehnquist's sudden death, President Bush elevated Roberts to the top spot.

He had been a federal appeals court judge in Washington since 2003 at the time of his selection. Previously, he had been a private attorney, government lawyer and a law clerk to Rehnquist.

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