THE average pay of a major league baseball player these days is four times what the Chief Justice of the United States makes. Granted, a federal judge is appointed for life, and the job doesn't involve heavy lifting or exposure to inclement weather. But that kind of pay gap is ridiculous. Worse, it threatens the quality of justice at a time when the country needs more, not fewer, top legal minds dedicated to sorting out increasingly complex social and economic issues.
Because inflation has eroded their salaries, and because their wet-behind-the-ears former clerks now can make more than senior jurists, increasing numbers of judges are returning to private practice. That's a bad sign, since a judge's most important tools - wisdom and understanding - come with experience on the job.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist has urged Congress to grant federal judges a 30 percent raise. Judges (unlike lawmakers) are prevented from making a lot of money on the side. And (unlike appointed officials) they can't pass back and forth through the lucrative revolving door of private gain and public service.
Congress got burned trying to raise its own pay. Federal judges - hardly a powerful special interest - should not be made to suffer. They should get the raise.