Senate Panel Hears of Ways to Protect Judges

The Senate Judiciary committee holds a hearing on the independence of the judicial branch and security for judges. The hearing was prompted by public and congressional outrage at some judges' decisions, and attacks on some judges and their families. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is one of the witnesses.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been a battleground recently over the separation of powers. Usually, it's the White House sparring with Congress. Well, today for a change, a top representative from the 3rd Branch was on the witness stand, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: From the way he described it, you would have thought Justice Kennedy was talking about sex or drug addiction.

Justice ANTHONY KENNEDY (Supreme Court): It's a subject that's frankly most awkward for me to talk about. And yet, it's a sensitive subject that I think we should discuss in a candid and frank way.

SHAPIRO: The subject? Judicial pay.

Justice KENNEDY: Our law clerks leave and they're paid more than - the year after they leave us - than our salary.

SHAPIRO: Boo-hoo-hoo, said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): I find it hard to imagine that our founding fathers believed that an independent judiciary required compensation at a level higher than 99 percent of the people whom they work for in the United States.

SHAPIRO: But, said Justice Kennedy - and here's the reason anyone who's not a judge should care about this issue - right now, judges' salaries are so low relative to other legal pay that the most talented people don't want the job.

Justice KENNEDY: I'm losing my best judges, Senator, and I'm not getting the highly qualified judges that I want in the other end, coming to entry. That's a fact. That's an economic fact.

SHAPIRO: And Kennedy said that threatens judicial independence. The committee's ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, confidently predicted that a pay raise will come through. He then proposed something that Supreme Court justices have been fighting for years - TV cameras in the high court. Specter said he's authored legislation that would permit them.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Isn't there necessarily great value in communicating to the people what the court does, 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?

SHAPIRO: Figuratively speaking, Kennedy got down on his knees.

Justice KENNEDY: Please, Senator, don't 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. We don't want that.

SHAPIRO: Cameras are allowed at the Texas Supreme Court, and Republican Senator John Cornyn said when he was a justice there, the introduction of cameras didn't change his colleagues' behavior at all.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I would just wonder if there might be some opportunity for us to work with you and your colleagues to try to find a way to allow the American people to see what it is you do day in, day out, rather than to suspect that the Supreme Court is really not all that much different in the way it operates than, perhaps, Judge Judy or some of the "Law and Order" episodes.

SHAPIRO: Kennedy's tone suggested that the justices are unlikely to change their minds.

Justice KENNEDY: We have come to the conclusion that it will alter the way in which we hear our cases, the way in which we talk to council, the way in which we talk to each other. And I hope that the Senate would defer to us a coordinate branch of the government.

SHAPIRO: Although Kennedy spent most of his time advocating for judges, he also delivered an unexpected and impassioned monologue on behalf of prisoners.

Justice KENNEDY: I'm not comfortable with anything in the federal correctional system and with our sentencing policy.

SHAPIRO: Kennedy said because of mandatory minimum sentences, 18-year-olds have gotten 15-year prison terms for growing marijuana, and he said having two million people behind bars in the United States for lengthy terms is just not working.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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