If America's federal judiciary is to attract outstanding jurists, it must pay them better, says William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States. The nation's top judge makes a strong pitch for higher judicial salaries in his first annual report to the nation, scheduled for release tomorrow. Chief Justice Rehnquist calls on President Reagan and Congress to adopt recommendations of the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries that were submitted to the White House in mid-December.
Rehnquist allows that the present annual salary of a district judge, averaging $78,700, ``is far more than most people in the United States earn at their jobs.'' But he makes the case for a raise, based on the fact that judges come not from a ``cross-section of occupations,'' but from a select group of senior lawyers with a median income of $164,000.
The commission suggests boosting federal trial judges' salaries to $130,000, while federal appellate jurists would earn $135,000, the same recommendation for members of Congress.
``We must be able to attract this kind of person, among others, to the federal judiciary,'' points out Rehnquist, ``but if salaries are not made comparable to the average earned in private practice, fewer of these candidates will possess the first-rate talent which has always been a hallmark of the federal bench.''
The chief justice goes on to say that ``the pay of federal judges has never been comparable to the earnings of lawyers at the top of their profession in private practice, and the recommendations of the salary commission do not approach those figures.
``The commission's recommendation would simply restore to federal judges the sort of earnings which have always made that office attractive to those who combine a desire for public service with an interest in the judicial process.''
Following in the footsteps of his recent predecessor, Warren E. Burger, the new chief justice uses the annual report on the state of the judiciary to discuss developments, needs, and prospects in the administration of justice. However, Rehnquist broadly hints that, unlike Burger, he may in the future use this forum for wider-ranging discussions of legal matters. Rehnquist court so far
Meanwhile, after observing the high court's first three months under the leadership of Chief Justice Rehnquist and with the addition of conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court analysts offer these assessments:
A predicted sharp swing to the political right has not materialized, at least so far. However, with decisions still due in more than 100 cases in l987, the Rehnquist court may well ultimately place its unique stamp of conservative philosophy on matters involving civil rights, environmental law, separation of church and state, and criminal justice.
The main contrast between Rehnquist's leadership and that of Mr. Burger, who served as chief justice for 17 years prior to his retirement last spring, has been one of style rather than substance. The present occupant of the Supreme Court's center chair is more informal and whimsical on the bench than was the more staid and traditional Burger. Rehnquist often good naturedly matches wits with lawyers presenting their cases. And insiders say he maintains a ``comfortable'' relationship with fellow high court jurists off the bench.
Although Rehnquist and Justice Scalia are already forming a new conservative axis on the court, they do not agree on all judicial questions. For example, Scalia cast a decisive vote recently in a 5-to-4 decision striking down part of the l971 federal election campaign law. Bucking the Chief Justice, who voted the other way, Scalia joined the opinion of liberal Associate Justice William Brennan holding that the law violated the First Amendment. Rehnquist said the court had no business second-guessing Congress on the matter.
The issue of individual rights vs. societal protections continues to split conservatives and liberals. For example, the chief justice has been a strong advocate in recent years of limiting protections for criminals and those accused of crime when such rights endanger public safety. Justice Brennan, on the other hand, stresses personal freedom. He recently stated that he would battle Rehnquist on this issue, adding that both federal and state protections are necessary to ensure individual rights.