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WASHINGTON -- Armed with a report that shows judges leaving for more lucrative jobs, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist on Wednesday made a rare public plea with three of his Supreme Court colleagues to urge better pay for federal judges.
For years Rehnquist has tried to draw attention to the salary issue in written reports.
He stepped up the pressure late last year with a visit to the White House to lobby President Bush. Congress is considering a plan to give judges about $25,000 more a year, which would make up for years without any pay increases.
"We must provide these judges -- whom we ask and expect to remain for life -- adequate compensation," Rehnquist told reporters at the court during a news conference with Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter and Stephen Breyer.
The report shows that more judges have left the bench since 1990 than in the previous three decades. Many took private jobs.
The American Bar Association and Federal Bar Association review also found that circuit and district judges' salaries, compared with inflation, have declined more than 23 percent since 1969. The buying power of Supreme Court salaries fell 37 percent.
The justices shrugged off a question about their personal financial sacrifices.
"I'm not taking three month vacations in Europe, and I have not spent thousands and thousands of dollars educating my children," said Rehnquist, a 78-year-old grandfather.
But he said that district judges, who earn about $155,000, can struggle to pay bills.
Souter said that he was recently advising a lawyer who was being considered for a judgeship. "I said, 'Tell me how you are going to educate your kids.' That was the end of the conversation," said Souter, who has no children.
Breyer, one of the wealthier justices, said that the pay scale should ensure that people of all backgrounds, not just the rich, agree to become judges.
Kennedy said there is a problem both in recruiting judges and keeping them from leaving for higher paying private jobs.
News conferences at the Supreme Court are extremely rare, usually reserved for the announcement of a retirement. The subject of a possible retirement this year did not come up. Rehnquist, who has been on the bench 31 years, is considered the most likely prospect.
Although Supreme Court justices are federal judges, the four were making their plea on behalf of lower court judges.
ABA President Alfred P. Carlton Jr. thanked the justices for having "a great deal of personal courage to stand up and talk about how much you make."
The report praises the pay raise plan that has passed a Senate committee, although Carlton said it would be better if the raises were not linked to a proposal that gives judges the discretion to allow television cameras in their courtrooms.
After a recent cost-of-living increase, appeals court judges earn $164,000 and Supreme Court justices receive about $190,000. The chief justice is paid more than $198,000.
On the Net:
American Bar Association: http://www.abanet.org/home.html
Federal Bar Association: http://www.fedbar.org/
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/