Federal judges file class action saying Congress violated constitution when it blocked salary increases

Posted on: December 11th, 2012 by Steve Larson
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Seven federal judges from across the country claim Congress violated their constitutional and statutory rights when it blocked judicial cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in six of the past 17 years.  In a lawsuit filed November 30, 2012, in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., the judges contend that Congress effectively lowered their pay by passing appropriations legislation in fiscal years 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2007 and 2010 that stated that judicial salaries would not be adjusted.  Congress’ refusal to provide members of the bench with COLAs in those six years adversely affected the COLAs they received in other years because such adjustments did not take into account the previously withheld adjustments, the judges argue.

 The judges contend that Congress in sometimes blocking their COLAs effectively lowers their compensation in violation of Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The judges contend that Congress also violates the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, which limits federal judges’ ability to earn outside income but calls for them to receive COLAs whenever federal civil servants receive them.  The judges say Congress has not restored the COLAs withheld or provided judges with back pay despite a ruling this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Beer v. United States, 696 F.3d 1174 (Fed. Cir. 2012).  In an en banc decision, the Federal Circuit held that the Ethics Reform Act barred Congress from blocking federal judges’ COLAs.

Plaintiffs in the suit filed Friday include U.S. District Judge W. Royal Furgeson, Jr. of the Northern District of Texas, the president of the Federal Judges Association (FJA).  Another plaintiff is U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the Southern District of Indiana, a former FJA president.  The plaintiffs asked that the suit be certified as a class action on behalf of all who served as federal judges with lifetime tenure under Article III of the U.S. Constitution at any time in the past six years.

 The case is Sarah Evans Barker, et al. v. United States, No. 12 C 826.