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A federal judge’s salary may look paltry against some private sector wages, but could that make it unconstitutional? That’s what the American Bar Association is contending in an amicus brief filed Wednesday urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case about whether the level of judicial pay violates a constitutional guarantee to undiminished compensation for judges.

A federal judge’s salary may look paltry against some private sector wages, but could that make it unconstitutional?  That’s what the American Bar Association is contending in an amicus brief filed Wednesday urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case about whether the level of judicial pay violates a constitutional guarantee to undiminished compensation for judges. 4

The American Bar Association has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept a case that contends lack of judicial pay raises amounts to a constitutional violation.

The ABA filed the brief on Wednesday arguing that federal judicial pay is so low that it compromises judicial independence assured by life tenure, according an ABA press release. At issue in the case, Beer v. United States, is whether Congress’ failure to approve cost-of-living adjustments violates the constitutional guarantee of undiminished compensation for federal judges, according to the brief (PDF).

According to the ABA website, 2010 pay is $174,000 for federal trial judges, $184,500 for federal appeals judges and $213,900 for U.S. Supreme Court justices.

The ABA asserts that inflation has seriously eroded the pay of federal judges. Inflation-adjusted wages for the average American worker have risen 19.5 percent since 1969, while salaries for federal district judges have dropped by 27 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, average profits per partner exceed $1 million at 68 of the nation’s largest law firms, and in many cases former judicial clerks earn more in the first year of private practice than the federal judges for whom they once worked.

The plaintiffs, a group of federal judges, claim they are entitled to back pay and declaratory relief for pay raises authorized under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. They acknowledge they cannot win their case unless the courts overturn a 2001 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Williams v. United States, the Christian Science Monitor reported last year.

“The ABA requests that the petition be granted so that this court may consider whether Congress may constitutionally withhold COLAs that were established by a prior Congress, or whether these actions violate the constitutional guarantee of undiminished compensation for the Article III judiciary,” the ABA writes in its amicus brief.

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