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Can a Federal Judge Get a COLA?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Federal judges often make less money in their life-tenured appointments than they would in the private sector. While they receive relatively comfortable salaries — the current salary is $174,000 for district court judges and $194,000 for circuit court judges — they have been fighting for years for annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs) that other federal employees receive.

(If those COLAs had not been withheld, the current salary for district judges would be $247,086 and $261,968 for circuit judges, according to the D.C. bar association.)

Friday, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 10-2 opinion that federal judges are entitled to COLAs because withholding the pay increases effectively diminishes their compensation in violation of the Article III of the Constitution.

The court's opinion focused on how the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 should be interpreted. The Act, SCOTUSblog explains, overhauled compensation and ethics rules for all three branches of the government. For judges, the Act limited the outside income they could earn and limited the honoraria they could accept, but provided for automatic COLAs -- like other federal employees receive -- to ensure that judges' salaries would keep up with inflation. The COLAs were only to be blocked if the president declared a national emergency or serious economic conditions.

Several years later, Congress refused to allow the judges' pay to increase, even though other federal employees received COLAs. The COLA disparity led to a federal court battle.

In 2001, a divided Federal Circuit panel found in Williams v. U.S. that the Supreme Court's U.S. v. Will applied to the Act, and concluded that Congress could withdraw the promised COLAs. (After all, Congress giveth and Congress taketh away, right?)

Friday, the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, overruled Williams and determined that the Act triggered the Compensation Clause's basic expectations and protections. The majority wrote, "In the unique context of the 1989 Act, the Constitution prevents Congress from abrogating that statute's precise and definite commitment to automatic yearly cost of living adjustments for sitting members of the judiciary."

While this ruling is considered a victory for federal judges, the victory could be short-lived. The government is expected to appeal the Federal Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court.

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