Beer v. United States, No. 10-5012 (Fed. Cir. 2012)Annotate this Case
The 1989 Ethics Reform Act, 103 Stat. 1716, limited a federal judge’s ability to earn outside income, but provided for automatic, non-discretionary cost of living adjustments (COLA); whenever a COLA for General Schedule federal employees takes effect under 5 U.S.C. 5303, the salary of judges “shall be adjusted.” The only limitation on General Schedule COLAs is a presidential declaration of a “national emergency or serious economic conditions” 5 U.S.C. 5303(b). Nonetheless, in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1999, General Schedule employees received adjustments, but Congress blocked adjustments for judges. Judges alleged violation of Article III, which provides that “Compensation” for federal judges “shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” The district court agreed, but the Federal Circuit reversed, based on United States v. Will, 449 U.S. 200 (1980). In 2001, Congress enacted legislation blocking COLAs in certain years. Judges sought back pay. The Court of Federal Claims dismissed; the Federal Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated. On remand, the Federal Circuit held that the claim was not precluded, but affirmed dismissal. On rehearing en banc, the Federal Circuit overruled its earlier decision, holding that the 1989 Act triggered the Compensation Clause’s basic protections. In this unique context, the Constitution prevents Congress from abrogating that precise commitment to COLAs. The 1989 Act controls over the 2001 enactments.
This is a revision of a Previous Opinion originally issued on January 15, 2010.