According to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog:
Refereeing a remarkable dispute between the judiciary and Congress, a divided federal appeals court ruled late Friday afternoon that lawmakers violated the Constitution by blocking cost-of-living salary increases for federal judges.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit acknowledged the case presented it with a direct conflict of interest. Judges aren’t supposed to participate in cases in which they have a personal or financial interest, but here, the appeals court said it had no choice. If every federal judge were disqualified, there would be no tribunal to hear the plaintiffs’ claims, it said.
At issue were claims by six current and former federal judges who said Congress violated the Constitution’s Compensation Clause when it blocked promised salary adjustments for several years.
The clause says judges’ pay “shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.” Intersecting with that provision was a 1989 federal law that promised judges automatic cost-of-living adjustments in concert with other federal employees.
The appeals court sided with the judges in a 10-2 ruling , saying that Congress can’t now back away from that promise.
“All sitting federal judges are entitled to expect that their real salary will not diminish due to inflation or the action or inaction of the other branches of government,” Chief Judge Randall Rader wrote for the court. “The judicial officer should enjoy the freedom to render decisions — sometimes unpopular decisions — without fear that his or her livelihood will be subject to political forces or reprisal from other branches of government.”
The appeals court said the case implicated basic separation-of-powers principles. “The judiciary, weakest of the three branches of government, must protect its independence,” Judge Rader wrote.
The two dissenters, Judges Timothy Dyk and William Bryson said the court’s ruling “has much to recommend it as a matter of justice to the nation’s underpaid Article III judges,” but nevertheless was incorrect. The dissenters said the plaintiff judges should lose under the precedent set by a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that said Congress could block or reduce future judicial salary increases so long as they hadn’t already taken effect.
“The Supreme Court may distinguish its own opinions by limiting them to their facts or choose to overrule them, but that is not an option for this court,” the dissenters wrote.
The state of judicial pay has been a thorny issue for federal judges for several years. Chief Justice John Roberts famously said in a 2006 year-end report that the failure to raise judicial pay had “reached the level of a constitutional crisis.”