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US Supreme Court Justice Urges Congress to Raise Judges' Pay

A U.S. Supreme Court justice made a rare appearance before a Senate committee Wednesday and appealed to Congress to increase the pay for federal judges. Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made his case before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has details.

Supreme Court justices rarely appear before Congress, out of respect for the separation of powers requirements laid out in the U.S. Constitution among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy told senators that Congress has ignored the issue of judicial pay for far too long, arguing that low salaries hurt morale and threaten to undermine judicial independence.

"It is very important that you keep in mind the objective of restoring the judiciary to its preeminent place," he said. "$160,000 [a year] for a [federal] district judge, the present salary, sounds like a lot of money to the average American, and it is. But it is insufficient for us to attract the finest members of the practicing bar to the bench."

Kennedy noted that a number of judges have been lured to universities and law schools in recent years where they can make up to twice as much money as they did on the bench.

Some senators seemed sympathetic to the call for higher salaries. Others expressed concern about the number of attacks on judges in recent years, including a few cases where judges were assassinated, and urged passage of legislation that would provide federal judges with greater security.

"We cannot tolerate or excuse violence against judges," said Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "No one should seek to minimize what a corrosive effect that has on our system."

Justice Kennedy said it is important to attract the best candidates for federal judgeships in order to safeguard the principle of judicial independence. Kennedy says nations around the world look to the U.S. judicial system, and the Supreme Court in particular, as examples of what independent judiciaries can do for democracies.

"It is essential, as a principle, to establish the idea that the rule of law depends on an independent judiciary, or else you have the rule of power, not the rule of law," he said.

"Judicial independence is something that is eagerly sought by judiciaries throughout the world and they look to the United States as an example," he added.

At least one senator, Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, suggested the Supreme Court could further its image in the United States by allowing the oral arguments before the high court to be televised.

The House of Representatives has allowed live television coverage of its floor proceedings since 1979, while the Senate has done the same since 1986.

Senator Specter suggested it is time the Supreme Court follow suit.

"Isn't there necessarily great value in communicating to the people what the court does," he asked. "If the people could see the inside of that room and see the nine of you there in your black robes and see the way you approach these issues?"

Most of the justices remain opposed to live television coverage of the oral arguments before the court. In fact one of them, Associate Justice David Souter, said some time ago that it would only happen over his dead body.

Justice Kennedy seemed cool to the idea in his response to Senator Specter.

"Please, Senator, do not introduce into the dynamics that I have with my colleagues the temptation, the insidious temptation, to think that one of my colleagues is trying to get a sound bite for the television," he said. "We do not want that. Please do not introduce this into our inter-collegial deliberations. We do not want it."

Much of the work of the Supreme Court is done behind closed doors. Justices hold oral arguments, then discuss the cases among themselves before rendering their opinions in writing, usually with a majority view of the court and one or more minority views on a given case.