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Memo to Rehnquist: No Raise for You
by Wendy R. Leibowitz

Our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist, is demanding a raise. His annual report on the federal judiciary, issued in mid-January, included a lengthy lament concerning poor judicial pay, which he called "the most pressing issue facing the federal courts." Associate justices earn $178,300 a year. The Chief Justice makes $186,300. He is also allowed, like all federal judges, to earn $21,000 a year teaching. A bill that would have allowed federal judges to earn honoria for lectures, dubbed "The Rehnquist Bill," sponsored by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, failed. Apparently the Senators did not believe that judges could pocket thousands of dollars in lecture fees from private companies and then judge issues impartially. If they could, they wouldn't be called "judges"; they'd be called "saints."

This High Court hears fewer than 100 cases a year, a much smaller number than in previous years. Of course, five of the current justices stopped the counting of votes in Florida, effectively selecting our current president. But is that worth the 9.6 percent raise that Rehnquist is demanding?

The most troubling aspect of this "Show me the money" tantrum isn't the public whining. Virtually everyone complains about salaries, including twenty-somethings in the software industry who now realize that they won't be able to retire at age 30 or even 40. No, it's that the Chief Justice continually compares his compensation with that of associates at private law firms, noting that they earn $165,000. This indeed is the starting salary for first-year associates--but only at the largest firms, in a handful of cities, mostly San Francisco and New York. The salaries are reported in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal precisely because they are so extraordinary. In return, the youngsters, who are carrying thousands of dollars in law school debts, are expected to work at least 2,000 hours a year (a figure the Supreme Court justices don't approach).

The associates are also billed out to clients at very high hourly rates, so their every hour is profitable for the firm.

There has always been a gap between those in public service and those in private practice. Part of the compensation for public service work is in prestige and the dignity of the sacrifice. The fact that the Chief Justice appears to ignore this cheapens his office. He is well past retirement age: he has diminished and divided the Court, and is, if anything, overpaid.


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