Illinois judges impress in their black robes, but underneath they're still state employees whose salaries are out of line compared to other states, said Lee Williams, author of a report on judicial pay and perks released by the Illinois Policy Institute.
Illinois circuit court judges earn an average of $169,555 per year, according to 2009 figures cited by the report. Their salaries make Illinois "one of the highest paid judiciaries in the country, second only to California, Williams said.
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Illinois' appellate judges also come in second on the national pay scale, while Illinois Supreme Court justices rank third, according to the report.
"The public deserves to know how their tax dollars are being spent, said Williams. "When you look at what we're paying them compared to other states, they should be providing answers to the public.
A spokeswoman from the Illinois Judges Association declined to comment on the report, saying the group's executive committee will meet today to discuss it. She would not say whether the association would comment at that time.
Circuit judges in Illinois make $31,855 per year more than in Iowa, $43,908 more than in Indiana and $44,809 more than in Wisconsin, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.
The report suggests "inflation of judicial salaries began in 2003 after then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed a $2.8 million cost-of-living adjustment for judges, prompting a class-action lawsuit challenging the veto. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled the law provided for the adjustments, which were protected by the Illinois Constitution, and ordered the comptroller to pay up.
"Judges do not determine their salaries, said Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor. "Their salaries are determined by the legislature.
"To the extent judicial salaries have increased over the last decade or so, it's been due to cost-of-living adjustments mandated by the Constitution, Tybor said.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Westmont Republican interviewed by Williams for the report, proposed judges be paid on a sliding scale based on geography, with higher salaries in areas with higher costs of living.
Dillard also suggested paying judges according to their caseload.
Acknowledging that judges in certain counties such as Cook, which ranks among the nation's largest court systems have a heavier caseload, Williams agreed that workload and performance should also factor into judicial salaries.
The report also examined pensions, which Williams claims are also among the nation's highest.
Judges contribute 11 percent of their gross pay toward pensions until age 60, but then can retire after 20 years on the bench with 85 percent of the last year's pay annually. Additionally, retired judges receive a 3 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment, Williams said.
By comparison, retiring Texas and Missouri judges receive 50 percent of their salaries, while Indiana judges receive 60 percent, Williams said. Other states cap pensions at 75 percent of salary, Williams said.
Lastly, the report criticized free room and board Illinois Supreme Court justices receive when the court is in session. Williams says a court spokesman cited security when he refused to let him see the apartments, which are in Springfield's Supreme Courthouse and have been used by justices for more than 100 years.
Ultimately, Williams hopes the report will spark a debate about judicial salaries among residents and their representatives in the General Assembly.
Given the state's dire finances, "maybe judges need to tighten their belts as well, Williams said.
Pays: Judges' pensions also among nation's highest