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Rehnquist's Request

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist used his year-end report on federal courts to plead for help for what he says are overworked and underpaid judges.

In a softer tone than last year, Rehnquist said he hoped Congress would recognize that top judges are fleeing to better-paying private jobs.

The 78-year-old chief justice acknowledged that similar pleas dating back to 1989 have done little good. "At the risk of beating a dead horse, I will reiterate what I have said many times over the years about the need to compensate judges fairly," he said in the report released Wednesday.

Rehnquist also took his concerns straight to the top, meeting with President Bush at the White House before Christmas and talking about pay raises for judges.

President Bush on Tuesday urged Congress to raise the pay of federal judges, but said he has no authority to act on his own.

Judges were excluded from cost-of-living increases that federal employees - and members of Congress - will receive in January. Congress should fix that as soon as possible, Rehnquist said, and along with the president address the broader problem of boosting salaries.

Judges got 3.4 percent cost-of-living increases last year, bringing pay up to $150,000 for federal trial judges, $159,000 for appeals court judges and about $184,000 for Supreme Court justices except for Rehnquist, who as chief justice earns $192,600.

Rehnquist said the quality of the courts will suffer if there continues to be a significant difference between what lawyers can earn at private law firms and as judges.

"At the present time there is not just a gap, there is a chasm," he said. "Our judges will not continue to represent the diverse face of America if only the well-to-do or the mediocre are willing to become judges."

American University law professor Herman Schwartz said Rehnquist's latest effort probably won't have much effect.

"It's hard to bleed for people earning six figures," said Schwartz, editor of a new Supreme Court book, "The Rehnquist Court."

He dismissed the notion that the wage gap has hurt the courts.

"This talk about people not being willing to go on the bench because of salaries is utter nonsense," Schwartz said. "They're lining up around the block."

Rehnquist used the year-end report last year to direct harsh criticism at Senate Democrats for slow judicial confirmations.

Outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Rehnquist in a letter a month ago that with Democrats in control of the Senate, 100 judges were confirmed. "We had more hearings for more nominees, more committee votes and more Senate confirmations than in any 16-month period when Republicans controlled the pace of consideration of President Clinton's nominations," he wrote.

Rehnquist only briefly mentioned judge vacancies in his report this year, and pointed out that Republicans would soon control the Senate. He said a solution should be sought for "the underlying problems that have bogged down the nomination and confirmation process for so many years."

Though it's widely speculated that Rehnquist will retire from the court after the session ends in June, he gave no indication that the annual report would be his last. He noted that he has done 17 as chief justice and that the issues such as salaries and number of judges remain largely the same.

He said new judgeships have been created, but not enough to help judges deal with the increased work. Some judges have had their work doubled, he said.

Criminal cases in federal courts rose 7 percent in 2002, civil cases increased 10 percent and bankruptcy court filings rose 8 percent, Rehnquist said.

Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University, said Rehnquist has consistently tried to get Congress to pay attention to judges' salaries and the need for more jurists.

"This is clearly one of the marks he wants to make before he retires," he said.

By Gina Holland