Washington (CNN) – A year ago, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said he was "tired" of urging lawmakers to live up to their pledge to raise judges' salaries. No increase has come, but in his latest annual year-end report released Thursday, the head of the federal judiciary found little to talk about, offering an unusually brief summary of the problems facing the courts.
"Many of those needs remain to be addressed," said Roberts. "This year, however, when the political branches are faced with so many difficult issues, and when so many of our fellow citizens have been touched by hardship, the public might welcome a year-end report limited to what is essential: The courts are operating soundly."
Roberts and his predecessor, William Rehnquist, regularly used their Supreme Court position to urge action on salaries, the increasing workload of the courts, and increased security in the nation's courtrooms. Recent year-end reports have contained more pointed criticism of congressional inaction on the salary dispute, but Roberts' brief comments this year were especially muted. As chief justice, he has administrative oversight over the entire federal court system. He is also the highest paid federal judge.
Last year the 54-year-old chief justice wrote, "I must renew the judiciary's modest petition: Simply provide cost-of-living increases that have been unfairly denied. We have done our part - it is long past time for Congress to do its."
Those so-called COLAs were approved in May, but not an overall salary increase. House and Senate committees have approved a 30-percent pay hike, but Congress as a whole has not acted on the proposal. The last time judges received a substantial pay increase was 1991, but they have received periodic increases designed to keep pace with inflation.
Some members of Congress are cool to the idea of increased pay for federal judges - among the highest paid federal employees. They also enjoy lifetime job security, and can retire at 65 with full salary after 15 years on the bench. Congressional salaries are roughly even with those of trial, or district court judges.
In a reflection of the sagging economy, Roberts noted bankruptcy filings this year were up 35 percent over 2008, to more than 1.4 million.
Immigration courts also saw a record-level number of cases, up 21 percent from last year. Roberts said the growth resulted mostly from improper entry by aliens and visa fraud. Almost 27,000 people faced serious federal immigration charges this year. Three-quarters of those defendants were charged with illegal re-entry after being previously kicked out of the U.S.
One issue the chief justice did not raise in his report was the slow pace of filling judicial vacancies by the Obama administration. The president has nominated only 30 people for the federal bench, winning confirmation of only 10 judges - three on the appeals courts, and seven district court judges. There are 99 current vacancies as of Thursday, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S Courts.
By comparison, President George W. Bush had 22 judges confirmed in his first year.
The slow pace can be traced to the Republican minority in the Senate, which has successfully blocked floor votes for a number of pending judicial nominations. Such vacancies in the long run can create backlogs in hearing cases, and strain financial and manpower resources.
Here are the annual salaries of federal judges with proposed increases from congressional committees:
–Chief Justice John Roberts: current $223,500, proposed increase to $279,900
–Other Supreme Court justices: current $213,900, proposed increase to $267,900
–Appeals or Circuit judges: current $184,500, proposed increase to $231,100
–District court judges: current $174,000, proposed increase to $218,000