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UNITED STATES V. WILL, 449 U. S. 200 (1980)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Will, 449 U.S. 200 (1980)

United States v. Will

No. 79-983

Argued October 13, 1980

Decided December 15, 1980*

449 U.S. 200


An interlocking network of federal statutes fixes the compensation of high-level federal officials, including federal judges, and provides for annual cost-of-living adjustments in salary determined in the same way as those for federal employees generally. In four consecutive fiscal years (hereafter Years 1, 2, 3, and 4), Congress, with respect to these high-level officials, enacted statutes to stop or reduce previously authorized cost-of-living increases initially intended to be automatically operative under that statutory scheme. In Years 2 and 3, the statutes became law before the start of the fiscal year, and in Years 1 and 4 became law on or after the first day of the fiscal year. A number of United States District Court Judges (appellees) filed class actions against the United States in District Court, challenging the validity of the statutes under the Compensation Clause of the Constitution, which provides that federal judges shall receive compensation which "shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." The District Court granted summary judgments for appellees.


1. This Court has jurisdiction of the appeals under 28 U.S.C. § 1252, providing for appeals to this Court from judgments holding an Act of Congress unconstitutional in any civil action to which the United States is a party. And the District Court had jurisdiction over the actions under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), which confers on district courts and the Court of Claims concurrent jurisdiction over actions against the United States based on the Constitution when the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000, none of the individual claims here having been alleged to have exceeded that amount. Pp. 449 U. S. 210-211.

2. Title 28 U.S.C. § 455 -- which requires a federal judge to disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned or where he has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or is a party to the proceeding -- by reason of the Rule of

Page 449 U. S. 201

Necessity does not operate to disqualify all federal judges, including the Justices of this Court, from deciding the issues presented by these cases. Where, under the circumstances of these cases, all Article III judges have an interest in the outcome, so that it was not possible to assign a substitute district judge or for the Chief Justice to remit the appeal, as he is authorized to do by statute, to a division of the Court of Appeals with judges who are not subject to the disqualification provisions of § 455, the common law Rule of Necessity, under which a judge, even though he has an interest in the case, has a duty to hear and decide the case if it cannot otherwise be heard, prevails over the disqualification standards of § 455. Far from promoting § 455's purpose of reaching disqualification of an individual judge when there is another to whom the case may be assigned, failure to apply the Rule of Necessity in these cases would have a contrary effect by denying some litigants their right to a forum. And the public might be denied resolution of the crucial matter involved if first the District Judge and now all the Justices of this Court were to ignore the mandate of the Rule of Necessity and decline to answer the questions presented . Pp. 449 U. S. 211-217.

3. The statutes in question in Years 1 and 4, but not in Years 2 and 3, violated the Compensation Clause. Pp. 449 U. S. 217-230.

(a) In each of the four years in question, Congress intended in effect to repeal or postpone previously authorized salary increases for federal judges, not simply to consign such increases to the fiscal limbo of an account due but not payable. Pp. 449 U. S. 221-224.

(b) Since the statute applying to Year 1 became law on the first day of the fiscal year, by which time the salary increases already had taken effect, it purported to repeal a salary increase already in force, and thus "diminished" the compensation of federal judges. That the statute included in the salary "freeze" other federal officials who are not protected by the Compensation Clause did not insulate a direct diminution in judges' salaries from the clear mandate of that Clause. Pp. 449 U. S. 224-226.

(c) But the statutes applying to Years 2 and 3 became law before the scheduled salary increases for federal judges had taken effect, i.e., before they had become a part of the compensation due Article III judges, and hence in no sense diminished the compensation such judges were receiving. Pp. 449 U. S. 226-229.

(d) Even though the statute applying to Year 4 referred only to "executive employees, which includes Members of Congress," and did not expressly mention judges, it appears that Congress intended to include Article III judges. Accordingly, where such statute, similarly to the statute applying to Year 1, purported to revoke an increase in

Page 449 U. S. 202

judges' compensation after the statutes granting the increase had taken effect, it violated the Compensation Clause. Pp. 449 U. S. 229-230.

No. 70-983, 478 F.Supp. 621, and No. 79-1689, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except BLACKMUN, J., who took no part in the decision of the cases.

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