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Federal judges deserve a fair raise

In what is either an oversight or an insult, Congress has excluded federal judges from a 3.1 percent cost-of-living pay raise due Jan. 1 for other federal employees, including members of the House and Senate. This wrong ought to be righted before the lame-duck session limps to a close.

Congress saw to its own this week when the Senate voted to accept a raise that will take annual congressional salaries up by $4,700 to $154,700 in 2003. The House gave its assent back in July. But neither chamber took a specific step required under a 1981 law to extend the COLA to federal judges.

Congress has failed to heed repeated pleas from the federal court system to repeal this provision. If the judicial salaries remain unchanged, the new year will mark the first time in modern history that U.S. District Court judges, who are paid $150,000 a year, earn less than members of Congress.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist warned earlier this year that the federal judiciary was having a harder time attracting top-caliber talent, partly because of its politically tortuous confirmation process, but also because of the relatively low pay compared to practicing law. Federal judges are appointed and salaried for life, but their outside sources of income are extremely limited, and their jobs do not provide survivors' benefits. The jobs do, however, come with enormous potential power, which is why they must be filled with top-flight legal minds who are insulated from politics.

The present system of compensating the judges fails on both counts. The salaries should be set by an independent commission, and COLA for judges should be awarded on the same basis it is for other federal employees. But that's a long-term solution. To fix the immediate problem, Congress has to take a much simpler step _ now.