Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Connecticut Federal Judge Quits, Citing the Lack of a Cost of Living Adjustment as the Reason

David Stras

Because I have blogged quite a bit about judicial pay, a reader sent me an article from the Connecticut Post reporting that a senior federal district court judge from Connecticut, Alan Nevas, made a decision to retire from the federal judiciary and cited the lack of cost-of-living increases from Congress as the reason for his decision, see here. Some excerpts from the article:

So when Congress once again failed to enact a cost of living pay adjustment for federal judges despite giving similar increases to themselves and every other federal employee, Nevas had enough.

"Congress voted themselves a raise this year, but they continue to treat federal judges as if they were second-class citizens," said Nevas, who turns 81 in March. "What they are doing is unfair and unrealistic."

So, late Friday afternoon, Nevas hung up his black judicial robe for good.
. . .

The latest failed attempt to increase federal judges' salaries came as an attachment to the December automobile bailout bill. That attempt railed U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

"Wrong time. Wrong place," McCaskill was reported saying in the Senate. "We have unemployment numbers today that are the highest unemployment in this country that we have had in decades. We have families all over this nation that are scared today, that aren't buying Christmas presents."

She went on to say: "Federal judges get lifetime appointments and they never take a dime's cut in pay. They die with the same salary they have today. And my phone is ringing off the hook ... from people who want to be federal judges."

Those comments rankled Nevas.

"What she neglected to say is that she, the rest of Congress and all other federal employees, except the judges, were going to get a cost of living adjustment on Jan. 1," he said. "What she said was unfair."

Analysis after the jump.

Let me say at the outset that though I am unfamiliar with Judge Nevas, it is generally a loss to the federal judiciary when any of its senior members, who are essentially working for free (because they could retire with full salary), leave. As I wrote in an article published in the Cornell Law Review about two years ago, senior judges provide a great service to the federal judiciary by performing an appreciable amount of judicial work. Indeed, some senior judges, particularly at the district court level, keep a full caseload.

And while I have previously written (on this blog) that Congress should give cost-of-living adjustments to federal judges to adjust their salaries to keep pace with inflation, particularly when Congress votes such raises for its own membership, Judge Nevas' retirement does not make the strongest case for a judicial pay raise. It is notable when active judges resign their post in the federal judiciary on account of low pay because those judges not only give up their coveted position but also their lifetime pension benefits. A senior judge has already by definition satisfied the "rule of eighty," which means that Judge Nevas should be statutorily entitled to his pension benefits for life, even as a retired judge. While it is true that he will receive the salary of the office at the time he fully retired and not be eligible for any future pay raises passed by Congress, given Congress's inability to give judges a pay raise of any kind, it is not clear that he is giving up very much other than the prestige associated with the office. Therefore, while it is a loss whenever members of the federal judiciary fully retire from the bench, I am not sure that Judge Nevas's decision to retire (or that of any other senior judge) is as compelling of a statement for a judicial pay raise as at first appears.

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