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When a presidential panel recommended pay raises for top federal officials Tuesday, the public focused mainly on the most controversial part of the plan.

That part, of course, involves a hefty raise for members of Congress in return for their stopping the practice of pocketing fees from special interest groups. The idea is to overcome objections to the 50 percent raise and wean this nation's lawmakers away from their dependence on groups whose aims aren't always in the best interest of the public.This proposed trade-off was well-known long before it was formally announced. Consequently, most Americans should have made up their minds about it and ought to start paying attention to other parts of the pay package.

The package would include raises not just for members of Congress but for a total of 2,500 top federal officials. The most appealing part involves the case for a pay raise for federal judges.

Like members of Congress, the judges also would get a 50 percent raise from $89,500 to $135,000 a year. But at that point the similarities stop. Few people, if any, are leaving Congress out of dissatisfaction with the salary. But plenty of judges are leaving the federal bench for that reason - and plenty of other lawyers are spurning efforts to recruit them as federal judges.

In one court district, 10 persons were offered a judicial appointment before the 11th finally accepted. What's more, the Committee on the Judicial Branch of the Judicial Conference of the United States reports that judges are leaving the federal bench in droves because of low pay.

A $89,500 salary won't strike the average American as particularly onerous. But it is small potatoes compared to what federal judges could be earning in private practice. Deans and senior professors at top law schools are making more than federal judges. Many clerks who leave the U.S. Supreme Court to join private law firms earn more in their first year of practice than most federal judges.

No wonder the Committee on the Judicial Branch concludes:

"Unless we wish to restrict federal judgeships to the narrow band of lawyers who are independently wealthy, personally ascetic, ideologically driven, or insufficiently competent to make the salary level of federal judgeships otherwise, the salary level must be adjusted upward dramatically."

The proposed raise would merely restore to federal judges the level of purchasing power that inflation has taken away from them over the past 20 years. The men and women who dispense justice from the federal bench are entitled to receive it, too - but they aren't getting it at the pay window.