All federal court judges -- from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts down to bankruptcy court judges -- got five-figure raises because of a court ruling that erased pay freezes going back to 1995.
Their salaries rose by 14 percent on Jan. 1, as years of catch-up cost-of-living adjustments were added to their paychecks.
“The law had promised them they would get these adjustments in the years all federal employees got them and Congress blocked them,” Washington lawyer Christopher Landau said in a telephone interview. Landau represented six judges who filed a 2009 lawsuit challenging the denial of pay raises.
During the 1990s, as the size of congressional paychecks became a political issue, lawmakers canceled four automatic cost-of-living bumps for themselves and the judiciary. That led to lawsuits, including a class action that the judges won.
The Court of Federal Claims in Washington issued the final order last month.
In letters to Congress on Oct. 29, 2013 and Dec. 4, 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder informed lawmakers that the Justice Department was no longer contesting the court cases and would consent to applying pay adjustments to all members of the federal judiciary.
There are 781 members of the federal judiciary and 93 vacant judgeships, according to the U.S. Courts website. That figure doesn’t include senior judges -- who take a reduced work load and continue working part time.
The chief justice is being paid $255,500, up from $223,500, according to court documents and data compiled by Bloomberg. Associate Supreme Court justices now have a $244,400 salary, up from $213,900. U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges are getting $211,200 a year, up from $184,500. The annual salary of a U.S. District Court judge increased to $199,100 from $174,000.
This all goes back to the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, Public Law 101-94. It limited outside earnings of judges in exchange for giving them the cost-of-living raises received by other federal employees.
Later, when lawmakers took those pay adjustments away from themselves, they also denied raises to the judges.
In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in the case of six district and appellate court judges that Congress had unconstitutionally cut the compensation to which federal jurists were entitled under the 1989 ethics law.
That law “reduced judges’ income by banning outside income,” such as honoraria for speeches, “but promised in exchange automatic maintenance of compensation – a classic legislative quid pro quo,” the court found.
The law pegged the salaries of district court judges to the pay of House members and senators.
During the 1990s, as congressional pay became a political issue, lawmakers passed legislation that canceled four automatic cost-of-living raises for themselves and the judiciary.
Laws that Congress passed in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999 violated the Constitution’s compensation clause that bars a “diminution in judicial compensation,” the appeals court said. Congress erroneously applied another law to withhold two other COLAS from judges in 2007 and 2010, the court ruled.
The original six judges who sued received almost $940,000 in back pay, including pre-tax interest for the denial of their cost-of-living increases. Individual judges received payouts ranging from $147,930 to $163,155.