Amercians accustomed to thinking of federal judges as financially well-heeled and "set for life" in a prestigious government post may be surprised at the findings of an American Bar Association task force study of judicial salaries. The ABA study found that federal judges, under mounting pressure from increased workloads, have fared worse than many in trying to keep up with the rising costs of living. Due to inflation the take-home pay of federal district judges, for instance, has declined to $19,000 in 1969 dollars; in other words, the purchasing power of a district judge was 60 percent higher 10 years ago than it is today. While the consumer price index rose almost 100 percent during that period, the ABA says, judges' pay went up 20 percent
People struggling to survive with far smaller incomes than the $54,500 annual pay of a US district court judge (appeals court judges get $57,500; Supreme Court justices $75,000) might well find it difficult to sympathize. But in comparison to the fees received by many successful attorneys in private practice -- big-city corporate lawyers in particular -- the compensation of a federal judge is relatively low and frequently represents a financial sacrifice. In New York City, for example, it is not uncommon for a young lawyer with 10 years' experience to earn $60,000 a year. Some run-of-the-mill corporate lawyers take in $150,000. So out of proportion to judges' salaries are corporate law fees that some question whether they are in accord with the ABA requirement that legal fees be "reasonable."
On the other hand, the pay scale of a federal judge does not appear to be out of line with many academic and government lawyers.
The primary concern is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract successful lawyers to the federal bench. Moreover, a growing number of experienced, highly qualified judges are resigning to resume private practice. A survey found that 73 percent of the judges leaving government service cited inadequate compensation as the primary factor in their decision to do so. The ABA task force reports that "the morale of the federal judiciary is at an all time low."
Nonetheles, the ABA is likely to run up against considerable skepticism in its campaign to sell an inflation-weary public and a cost-conscious Congress on the need to bolster judicial salaries. Its first task is to convince the US Commission on Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Salaries, which is appointed every four years to make salary recommendations to the President regarding high-level federal officials. Wage levels for federal judges clearly should be set high enough to attract the quality of men and women needed to decide the important social, economic, and political issues being handed to the courts.
Having said this, however, it should be noted that the Carter administration has increased the number of judges with an eye toward easing some caseload pressures. Experimentation with alternatives to courtroom litigation such as the use of neighborhood mediation centers and professional arbitrators, also holds out the promist of relief. $Kresident$A Carter likewise has significantly enlarged the pool of candidates from which judges are chosen to include more minorities and women. This could open up judgeships to large numbers of a well qualified lawyers and non-lawyers to whom a judge's salary may not be looked upon as a financial sacrifice.
In any case, it is imperative that there be no let up in the search for ways to get and keep capable, experienced professionals on the federal bench. As Irving R. Kaufman, chief judge for the US court of appeals in New York, noted recently, ". . . a strong and independent judiciary [is] our best protection against tyranny and abuse of power. Unless we are able to attract and retain the best legal minds to our courts, we will effectively sacrifice one of our most precious national treasures -- the United States courts."