Federal judges are now making noise about their paychecks. Maybe they should learn from Pennsylvania judges' experiences when it comes to asking taxpayers to shell out more money.
If you'll recall, the infamous July 2005 middle-of-the-night pay raise for Pennsylvania politicians and judges was hatched up by Gov. Ed Rendell, legislative leaders (most of whom have been voted out of office) and Ralph Cappy, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Cappy's court eventually ruled that the way the legislators took the pay raise (something called unvouchered expenses) was unconstitutional, but restored the 10 percent pay raises for themselves and 1,200 other state and local judges. And they also tied future pay increases to salaries of federal judges.
The backlash against Pennsylvania judges began in 2005 when Russell Nigro failed to win his retention re-election for another 10-year term on the state's highest court. The other judge on the ballot that year, Sandra Schultz Newman, narrowly won her retention vote, but she ended up resigning from the court in 2006, citing the constant criticism of judges by Pennsylvania residents.
Pennsylvania voters will get another chance to send a clear message to greedy judges when they get to pick three new judges for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this November. Justice Thomas Saylor is seeking retention and two vacancies on the court (Nigro and Newman) must also be filled. Voters can send a strong message to Cappy (who won't face voters until 2009) that greed is not a virtue when you decided to wear the judicial robes.
Replacing three of the court's seven members would send a strong message to Harrisburg that Pennsylvania taxpayers are tired of being fleeced by politicians, whether they are members of the executive, legislative or judicial branch.
At the same time Pennsylvania judges have been whining about their pay, members of the U.S. Supreme Court have been lobbying for bigger paychecks. Chief Justice John Roberts has made several public pleas for higher pay, calling the lack of a big payday for federal judges a "constitutional crisis."
On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy told members of a Senate committee that Congress has disregarded judicial pay, creating morale problems among judges and threatening to undermine judicial independence.
The current salary level for judges "is insufficient to attract the finest members" of the legal profession to accept appointments to the bench, Kennedy said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the Associated Press.
Federal district court judges are paid $165,200 annually; appeals court judges make $175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court earn $203,000; the chief justice gets $212,100.
Kennedy said "$160,000 sounds like a lot of money to the average American, and it is. But it is insufficient to attract the finest members of the practicing bar to the bench," according to the Associated Press.
There's no argument that lawyers can make a lot more money in private practice than they can serving on the bench. But I challenge Kennedy to find one sitting federal judge who took the job because of the money. And who says the highest paid person is always the most qualified person?
If Roberts and Kennedy agreed to serve on the Supreme Court because they were expecting a big payday, they are fools. Whatever happened to the concept of public service? Nobody held a gun to Roberts and Kennedy and forced them to join the Supreme Court.
Roberts and Kennedy knew what the salary was when they accepted their current positions. They also knew that they would have lifetime tenure and an opportunity to create a legacy for themselves. (And annual financial disclosures show that most of the justices on the Supreme Court have net worths of more than $1 million.)
If Roberts and Kennedy think they can make more money in the private sector, then by all means, they should resign from the court today and join a corporate law firm.
There's nothing in the Constitution that says a Supreme Court justice has to stay on the court into their 90s or until they die in office. They are welcome to step down any time they want and I guarantee there will be thousands of other applicants waiting in line to take their place on the court.
Nobody runs for president of the United States because of the salary. The same goes for the Senate, the House or the bench. Those positions provide intangible rewards that cannot be measured in dollars.
Judges are free to write books and give lectures to supplement their income.
If things are that tight at the Roberts and Kennedy households, maybe their wives could get a job, like most American households, where both spouses have to work to make ends meet.
Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. He received a first place award for Best Opinion Column in 2007 by Suburban Newspapers of America. He was also honored for column writing in 2006 by the Society of Professional Journalists.