United States v. Hatter
Annotate this Case
532 U.S. 557 (2001)
OCTOBER TERM, 2000
UNITED STATES v. HATTER, JUDGE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FEDERAL CIRCUIT
No. 99-1978. Argued February 20, 200l-Decided May 21, 2001
In 1982, Congress extended Medicare to federal employees. That new law meant, inter alia, that then-sitting federal judges, like all other federal employees and most other citizens, began to have Medicare taxes withheld from their salaries. In 1983, Congress required all newly hired federal employees to participate in Social Security and permitted, without requiring, about 96% of the then-currently employed federal employees to participate in that program. The remaining 4%-a class consisting of the President, other high-level Government employees, and all federal judges-were required to participate, except that those who contributed to a "covered" retirement program could modify their participation in a manner that left their total payroll deduction for retirement and Social Security unchanged, in effect allowing them to avoid any additional financial obligation as a result of joining Social Security. A "covered" program was defined to include any retirement system to which an employee had to contribute, which did not encompass the noncontributory pension system for federal judges, whose financial obligations (and payroll deductions) therefore had to increase. A number of federal judges appointed before 1983 filed this suit, arguing that the 1983 law violated the Compensation Clause, which guarantees federal judges a "Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office," U. S. Const., Art. III, § 1. Initially, the Court of Federal Claims ruled against the judges, but the Federal Circuit reversed. On certiorari, because some Justices were disqualified and this Court failed to find a quorum, the Federal Circuit's judgment was affirmed "with the same effect as upon affirmance by an equally divided court." 519 U. S. 801. On remand, the Court of Federal Claims found that the judges' Medicare claims were time barred and that a 1984 judicial salary increase promptly cured any violation, making damages minimal. The Federal Circuit reversed, holding that the Compensation Clause prevented the Government from collecting Medicare and Social Security taxes from the judges and that the violation was not cured by the 1984 pay increase.
1. The Compensation Clause prevents the Government from collecting Social Security taxes, but not Medicare taxes, from federal judges who held office before Congress extended those taxes to federal employees. Pp. 565-578.
(a) The Court rejects the judges' claim that the "law of the case" doctrine now prevents consideration of the Compensation Clause because an affirmance by an equally divided Court is conclusive and binding upon the parties. United States v. Pink, 315 U. S. 203, 216, on which the judges rely, concerned an earlier case in which the Court heard oral argument and apparently considered the merits before affirming by an equally divided Court. The law of the case doctrine presumes a hearing on the merits. See, e. g., Quern v. Jordan, 440 U. S. 332,347, n. 18. When this case previously was here, due to absence of a quorum, the Court could not consider either the merits or whether to consider those merits through a grant of certiorari. This fact, along with the obvious difficulty of finding other equivalent substitute forums, convinces the Court that Pink does not control here. Pp. 565-566.
(b) Although the Compensation Clause prohibits taxation that singles out judges for specially unfavorable treatment, it does not forbid Congress to enact a law imposing a nondiscriminatory tax (including an increase in rates or a change in conditions) upon judges and other citizens. See O'Malley v. Woodrough, 307 U. S. 277, 282. Insofar as Evans v. Gore, 253 U. S. 245, 255, holds to the contrary, that case is overruled. See O'Malley, supra, at 283. There is no good reason why a judge should not share the tax burdens borne by all citizens. See Evans, supra, at 265, 267 (Holmes, J., dissenting); O'Malley, supra, at 281-283. Although Congress cannot directly reduce judicial salaries even as part of an equitable effort to reduce all Government salaries, a tax law, unlike a law mandating a salary reduction, affects compensation indirectly, not directly. See United States v. Will, 449 U. S. 200, 226. And those prophylactic considerations that may justify an absolute rule forbidding direct salary reductions are absent here, where indirect taxation is at issue. In practice, the likelihood that a nondiscriminatory tax represents a disguised legislative effort to influence the judicial will is virtually nonexistent. Hence, the potential threats to judicial independence that underlie the Compensation Clause, see Evans, supra, at 251-252, cannot justify a special judicial exemption from a commonly shared tax, not even as a preventive measure to counter those threats. Because the Medicare tax is nondiscriminatory, the Federal Circuit erred in finding its application to federal judges unconstitutional. Pp. 566-572.