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GAO Report on Trends in Judicial Pay Shows Decline in Earning Power
First the good news: the basic pay rates for selected federal pay plans
increased in nominal or current dollars from 1970 to 2006. Now the bad news:
when adjusted for inflation to 2006 dollars, the pay rates for justices and
judges in real dollars decreased. Those were two of the findings of a June 2006
Government Accounting Office report on Human Capital: Trends in Executive and
The report was requested by the House Government Reform Committee
Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization.
"Critical to the success of the federal government's transformation are its
people—human capital," the report notes in an explanation of why it undertook
the study. "Yet the government has not transformed, in many cases, how it
classifies, compensates, develops, and motivates its employees to achieve
maximum results….GAO has reported that the federal government as a whole may
face challenges in offering competitive compensation to its senior leaders who
have reached a statutory pay cap."
GAO was asked in this study to provide trend data for basic pay rates of
selected federal executive and judicial pay plans from 1970 to 2006; identify
elements of total compensation for the selected pay plans in 2006; and identify
principles for any possible restructuring of these pay plans.
The data shows that since 1970, courts of appeals and district judges have
seen their pay decline by 1 percent, when adjusted for inflation using the Gross
Domestic Product price deflator. Their pay fell 20 percent when compared to the
Consumer Price Index. Justices have seen an even greater decline, with their
earnings dropping 19 percent against the GDP and 34 percent against the CPI.
The report recommended that, if executive-level pay plans are to be
restructured, certain principles should be considered. Unfortunately, most of
those principles might be difficult to apply to Article III judges. For example,
the report proposes that executive-level pay plans be market-sensitive,
responsive to changes in the nation's economy, and reflective of
responsibilities, knowledge and skills, and contributions.
However, the report also recommends that pay plans be transparent—where
Congress, leadership, and the public can easily understand the value of
compensation and contributions—and competitive, with reasonable total
compensation and other elements necessary to attract and retain leadership.
The report wraps up with several observations, one of which is that a
commission explore ways to maintain a reasonable relationship across executive
level positions and to the relevant markets. "For example, in 1967 and 1989,"
the report states, "Congress established the authority to appoint commissions to
provide salary recommendations to the President every four years for top-level
executive, judicial, and legislative officials." The 1989 commission, the report
duly notes, has yet to be appointed.
The GAO report, Human Capital: Trends in Executive and Judicial Pay,
is available at www.gao.gov/new.items/d06708.pdf.