Judicial Pay and Perks in the Prairie State

Lee Williams Oct. 14, 2010, 11:45am

Editor's note: This article is published with permission from the Illinois Policy Institute.

An Illinois circuit judge makes $39,855 more than a circuit judge in Iowa, $43,908 more than a circuit judge in Indiana and $49,701 more than a judge in Missouri.

Illinois taxpayers are subsidizing one of the highest paid judiciaries in the country, and the judges don't want to talk about it.

Judges serving on the state's circuit courts—the most numerous and costly to taxpayers— are the second highest paid in the country.

Judges on the Illinois Appellate Court also have the second-highest salaries in the nation, behind only California.

Justices serving on the state Supreme Court have the third highest salaries in the country.

The Illinois court administrator makes more than any court administrator in the other 49 states.

By comparison, Illinois has only the 29th highest cost of living. Other financial indicators give the state a similar cost-of-living ranking.

Why the disparity?

What led to the high salaries?

Why have Illinois judges lobbied and sued to increase their pay?

Why indeed.

The Illinois Policy Institute posed a simple question to the four organizations representing active or retired judges in Illinois, and to one Supreme Court justice seeking retention, who has already been tapped to lead the state's highest court: Why does a state that ranks near the middle of the pack in terms of cost of living have one of the highest paid judiciaries in the country?

Rather than answering the question, the judges went to ground. In their place they offered an army of intermediaries, spokespersons and campaign staffers, who tried to put some distance between the jurists and the Institute's newsgathering efforts probing their salaries.

The country's highest paid court administrator, Cynthia Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, said she and her office were exempt from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was sent to her seeking information about judicial perks.

Joe Tybor, a former newspaperman turned attorney who now serves as spokesman for the state Supreme Court, wouldn't say much about judicial salaries, other than that state lawmakers were the ones responsible.

Historically, however, that hasn't exactly been the case.

Information on Illinois's judicial salaries, and those of every other state, is gathered annually by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), an independent, nonprofit located in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Judicial salary data is their most sought after work product.

The Illinois NCSC data from 2009 shows Supreme Court justices receive $201,819 annually.

Appellate judges receive $189,949 each year, and circuit court judges are paid $174,303.

Cobbs receives an annual salary of $189,949.

By comparison, the average per-capita personal income in Illinois in 2009 was $41,411.

The entire court system employs more than 5,000 employees, and costs taxpayers more than $500 million in state and local funding.

State lawmakers are quick to point out they're not entirely responsible for the judges' ever-escalating pay.

True, the lawmakers say, they must approve or deny any recommendation made by the state's Compensation Review Board — a 12-member independent commission that meets, according to statute, "as often as may be necessary" to determine the pay for the general assembly, elected constitutional officers, certain appointees and the judiciary.

But the judges haven't always been satisfied with the actions the legislature has taken with the board's recommendations, or the actions one governor took with a bill involving a judicial COLA.

In 2003, after then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed a $2.8 million cost of living increase for the judiciary, a judge filed suit, which turned into a class-action on behalf of all Illinois judges.

In Jorgensen v. Blagojevich, the justices first pondered whether it was ethical for them to hear a case from which they themselves could profit, and then they decided it was okay.

"We begin by noting that none of the parties have questioned the propriety of our consideration of this case. All seven members of our court belong to both classes of judges defined by the circuit court and therefore have a pecuniary interest in the outcome of these proceedings. Such an interest would normally require us to disqualify ourselves. That option is not available to us here. Illinois law makes no provision for appointing temporary alternative jurists to sit in our place," the Justices said in their decision. "Even if it did, there would be no one for us to choose who did not face the same conflict of interest. All sitting Illinois judges will be affected by the outcome of this appeal. Were we to recuse ourselves, the parties would therefore be left without a forum in which to review the circuit court's judgment. Their right to appeal would be lost. Under these circumstances, the common law 'rule of necessity' obligates us to proceed."

Lawmakers say the lawsuit has caused judicial salaries to inflate every year, since COLAs are now automatic.

As a possible fix, one lawmaker has proposed creating a sliding pay scale based on geography, similar to the system used to pay state's attorneys, should be considered.

However, since state law prohibits the general assembly from diminishing judicial salaries, any legislative fix would only apply to newly-elected jurists, creating a two-tiered system similar to what was created by recent pension reforms for newly-hired state employees.

In Illinois, judicial pensions also need more reforms.

Like their salaries, Illinois judges have a pension benefit that is among the highest in the country, according to the NCSC.

Illinois judges sworn in before January 1. 2011 contribute 11-percent of their gross pay until the age of 60. They're vested after 20 years.

Under the old system, which affects most of the jurists, A 60-year-old judge with 20 years of service will receive 85-percent of their last year's salary. In addition, there is a three-percent COLA added to their pension annually. Those sworn in after the start of the new year receive a more modest benefit.

Other states aren't so generous.

Texas and Missouri judges receive 50-percent of their salary upon retirement.

Indiana judicial pensions are capped at 60-percent.

Alaska, Alabama, New Hampshire and many other states cap judicial pensions at 75-percent.

Rhode Island allows jurists sworn in before 1997 to receive 100-percent of their salary. Those sworn in after 1997 are eligible for 75-percent.

Not only are Illinois judicial pensions among the highest in the country, at 85-percent, they are the highest in the state.

Most of the bigger public pension funds in the state are capped at 75-percent, including teachers, state employees, police and fire.

Around the country, judicial perks and privileges are coming under increased scrutiny.

In California, counties must stop giving payments and perks to judges who already receive state benefits, after Judicial Watch, a national nonprofit watchdog filed suit.

Some of the counties were paying nearly $50,000 per judge in what were called "supplemental compensations." Some of the perks consisted of cash payments. Others included gym memberships and other freebies.

Lawyers complained the payments made it nearly impossible to prevail in any lawsuit filed against a California county.

Other states are looking at reducing vehicle allowances, sick leave reimbursement and other perks.

In Illinois, even though they make more than $200,000, Supreme Court justices receive free room and board courtesy of the taxpayers – an entitlement usually reserved only for the executive branch.

Unlike many states that require their justices to relocate to the capitol if they want to serve on the high court, the third floor of the Supreme Court building in Springfield contains apartments that the justices use when the court is in session.

The perk consists of more than just a free room. The apartments come with housekeeping, a cook to prepare their meals, maid service and 24-hour security.

The Supreme Court justices have refused to disclose how many taxpayer dollars are spent on upkeep, meals and security at their apartments.

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