An otherwise fine AP story in the Detroit News about a lawsuit on federal judicial compensation opens with this subtly snide sentence:
With the nation teetering on an economic "fiscal cliff," federal judges may soon force Congress to dedicate possibly millions of dollars to what some of those same judges must consider a worthy cause: their own salaries.
There are two big problems with the subtext of this opening. First, it suggests a greedy move by judges. In fact, as the story eventually points out, federal judges have a very legitimate gripe. Their pay is supposed to be adjusted for cost of living but Congress has withheld COLA increases several times while giving other federal employees increases. As a consequence, the effective pay of federal judges, never extravagant, has deteriorated significantly compared to the legal market, and today falls well short of what even many first-year associates in big law firms earn. Second, and just as importantly, the opening reinforces the dangerous myth that the nation's fiscal crisis can be solved by dribs and drabs, a loophole here, a nip-and-tuck there. The cost of fair compensation for judges is not even a drib -- it's an infinitesimal fraction of a drib (the entire Federal Judiciary budget accounts for less than 0.2% of the U.S. budget).
And don't get me started (again) on compensation for Michigan's judges, who haven't seen any pay increase in over a decade, while benefits have decreased.
Lawyers perenially grouse about judges, and admittedly there will always be a few who don't live up to the high standards that the calling demands, but if we don't stand up for fair compensation for those who preside over our courts, how can we as lawyers justify what we charge for our own professional efforts?