Declining Real Wages for Supreme Court Justices

Hat tip to ThinkProgress for pointing out this article by Linda Greenhouse

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made judicial pay the sole topic of his second annual report, issued on Sunday, declaring that the failure by Congress to raise federal judges’ salaries in recent years has become a “constitutional crisis” that puts the future of the federal courts in jeopardy. He noted that judges had fallen well behind the American labor force as a whole in keeping up with inflation over the past 25 years, with judges’ pay having declined by 23.9 percent since 1969, adjusted for inflation, while the national average for all wages rose by 17.8 percent. Given such a “dramatic erosion of judicial compensation,” the chief justice said, it was “clear that the time is ripe for our nation’s judges to receive a substantial salary increase.” … By statute, federal district judges receive the same salaries as members of Congress, now $165,200 a year. Judges on the federal appeals courts receive $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court, $203,000; and the chief justice $212,100. The linkage of district judges’ and Congressional salaries means that judges pay the price when members of Congress discern that it would be politically unpopular to raise their own pay. That is not the only problem, from the judges’ perspective. Their last substantial pay raise was a 25 percent increase provided by a 1989 law, the Ethics Reform Act, under which judges lost the right to earn most types of outside income in return for the raise and the promise of regular cost-of-living increases. But there were no increases in 5 of the last 13 years. Congress ended its 2006 session without providing a cost-of-living increase for the current fiscal year. “Congressional inaction in the face of this situation is grievously unfair,” the chief justice said.

If Justice Roberts is correct, then the chief justice back in 1969 was receiving a salary in excess of $260,000 per year when stated in terms of today’s dollars. And if the compensation is reset today to be 117.8% of the real compensation back in 1969, we are talking about a salary of almost $310,000 per year. I’d bet most people would love to see their compensation increased by 45% this year. But what would be the appropriate compensation for justices?