Congress Can't Withhold Judges' Promised Pay Hikes, En Banc Court Rules

  • Print.

Updated: Congress violated the Constitution’s compensation clause when it withheld promised cost of living adjustments for federal judges, an en banc panel has ruled.

The 10-2 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed its 2001 ruling on the subject, report the National Law Journal and SCOTUSblog.

SCOTUSblog begins its story this way: “After battling for years to get a pay raise that they say Congress had once promised them, six federal judges finally won in a specialized federal court on Friday. If the ruling withstands a likely trip to the Supreme Court, those judges—and presumably others—will get annual cost-of-living increases that have been specifically vetoed by Congress.”

Congress promised cost of living pay hikes for judges in exchange for limits on outside income in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, according to the en banc opinion. When Congress blocked COLAs in the 1990s, “Congress broke this commitment and effected a diminution in judicial compensation,” said the opinion by Chief Judge Randall Rader.

The dissenters argued that the U.S Supreme Court’s 1980 opinion, United States v. Will, permitted Congress to revoke COLAs before they were due to be paid. The majority said Will involved a different law on judicial pay, and it did not create “firm expectations that judges would in fact receive any inflation-compensating adjustment.”

The ABA had filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that withholding salary adjustments was a constitutional violation, according to a press release. The brief (PDF) says that from 1969 to 2012, the inflation-adjusted salary of federal district judges has dropped about 31 percent while pay for the average American worker increased 19.5 percent.

Updated on Oct. 10 to include ABA information.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.