DuPage judges spend tax dollars on pricey robes
When it comes to their robes, money is apparently no object for DuPage County's judges.
Taxpayers take care of it.
Judges use tax dollars and spent $1,863 on five robes in 2011.
Judges cover the cost of robes and other items from a "marriage fund" that comes from $10 paid each time a judge presides over a wedding. Judges spent $587.09 on three robes in 2011.
Robes are paid for out of the "marriage fund." Judges spent $330 on three robes in 2011.
The Lake County Bar Association buys each new judge a robe. Agency officials estimate the average cost is $250 per robe.
Judges buy their own robes.
Five robes were purchased for DuPage County jurists this year at a cost of nearly $2,000. Robes that are individually tailored and include hand-stitched monograms.
In the past eight years, taxpayers have covered the cost of 38 robes — and alterations to a few of them — to the tune of more than $13,500, or an average of $356 a robe, according to invoices available on DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan's website.
Meanwhile, taxpayers elsewhere in the Chicago area aren't responsible for this expense. In Cook County, judges have to buy their own robes. The Lake County Bar Association buys each new judge there a robe.
In Kane and McHenry counties, judges use fees accrued from performing marriages at $10 per couple to pay for robes, but even then the price tags aren't nearly as high as in DuPage County. Kane County used $330 from the judges' "marriage fund" this year to buy three robes.
Three judicial robes in McHenry County amounted to $587.09 this year, officials there reported.
State law outlines what can be purchased with fees from the marriage funds. Robes are among the approved expenses.
DuPage County judges married 1,610 couples this year at $10 a couple, according to records from the circuit court clerk's office. Officiating fees from those weddings would have more than covered the costs of robes. It's unclear how the DuPage County judges are spending the wedding fees, because Grogan's office doesn't audit the fund since it's kept under $50,000.
DuPage Chief Judge Jack Elsner, just three days into his tenure, couldn't immediately say how the money is spent.
The 46 DuPage County judges — 16 circuit and 30 associate — make between $172,000 and $180,000 a year.
Critics say DuPage County judges are "overspending" on robes and should disclose how wedding fees are used.
"Our judiciary should lead by example on transparent and accountable spending," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, an organization that monitors governmental spending. "The people of Illinois are tired of egregious examples of misspending. The judiciary needs to immediately open the books on their fund accounts."
Elsner admittedly has not familiarized himself with robe purchasing policies. He has been on the bench for more than 20 years and had a $315 robe purchased for him in 2006 that he wears when he presides.
"I don't think it's extraordinary given the length of the use of the robe," Elsner said of the price tag.
DuPage County judges buy their robes from Oak Hall Industries in Virginia. The Bentley & Simon robes have eight different fabrics to choose from, with base prices ranging from $325 on the low end to $421 for the top-selling "Tropical Wool," a wrinkle-resistant fabric that the company claims "absorbs body vapor, keeping you from feeling damp or clammy."
DuPage County Judge Liam Brennan wears a Tropical Wool robe that was purchased for him in 2010. After customizations and shipping, the final price tag for Brennan's robe was $464.50, the highest DuPage County has paid so far, according to the invoices.
The most common fabric choice among DuPage judges is the "Dalton," according to the invoices. All five robes purchased this year were $376 Daltons, described as 100 percent polyester crepe that is reportedly stain-resistant and doesn't trap heat.
"They used to say we're the Cadillac of judicial robes, so now you might say the Mercedes or Lexus," said Donna Hodges, vice president of Oak Hall Industries. "All the U.S. Supreme Court justices wear a Bentley & Simon."
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