Despite declining caseloads, stagnant population and the state's growing deficit, Illinois taxpayers will spend about $39 million more on judicial salaries this year than they did just eight years ago.
There are 56 more judges on the bench today than there were in 2004, and all 967 judges receive a constitutionally guaranteed raise every year.
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Illinois' trial judges -- 906 of them on the bench throughout the state -- receive the highest salaries for such a post in the country, according to data compiled by a national judicial research organization. The state's 523 circuit judges make $180,802 a year, while the current roster of 383 associate judges make $171,762 annually. California follows Illinois, paying its highest-ranking trial judges a maximum of $178,789.
Illinois appellate court judges, 54 of them, make $197,032 a year. And the seven Supreme Court justices make $209,344. The higher court jurists have the second-highest salaries in the country, only behind California.
Combined, Illinois judges will be paid $172.6 million in 2012. The payout is 29 percent more than 2004's.
The high salaries, on top of the increased number of judges, have some critics worried about the impact to taxpayers who help fund the already lucrative judicial pension program. While some retirement benefits have been curbed by recent legislation, that only affects new judges. The vast majority of judges currently on the bench will receive 85 percent of their final salary if they serve 20 years. Judicial pensions also receive an automatic 3 percent cost-of-living increase that's compounded annually. Most public pensions require 30 to 35 years on the job and max out at 75 percent of a worker's salary.
"That is a concern, especially when you look at caseloads per judge," said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a government spending watchdog organization with offices in Chicago and Springfield. "Our judges, compared to some neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana, have lower caseloads, but they're being paid $60,000 more."
A study conducted by The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Conference of State Court Administrators and National Center for State Courts shows that in 2009 Indiana trial judges handled 4,983 cases on average and Wisconsin judges averaged 6,611 cases a year. But the top-ranking judges in those states made almost $50,000 less a year than their counterparts in Illinois who averaged 4,533 cases.
"We're a state with a relatively low cost of living," said Collin Hitt, senior director of government affairs for the Illinois Policy Institute. "Why are our judges being paid considerably more than judges across the country? It's a question with no obvious answer."
Joe Tybor, a spokesman for the state court administrator, noted that the judiciary budget is "less than 1 percent of the entire state budget" and judicial salaries represent "54 percent of the branch's budget."
"Judges have really no control over their salary," he said. "The overall judicial budget has been flat or declined for the past several years."
Still, at the same time, the national study showed Illinois felony cases declined 13 percent from a high of 103,642 in 2002 to 90,176 in 2009. The study did not include details on civil, misdemeanor, juvenile or other cases handled by trial judges during that time.
Felonies are handled by full circuit court judges. Despite the felony caseload decline, there are 29 more circuit judges on the bench today than in 2004, according to records reported by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts.
There was a rush to fill a number of vacancies a few years ago before changes to the judicial pension laws took effect, legislative officials said.
While the legislature approves judicial salaries, lawmakers have very little leeway in determining the amounts. The state constitution set judicial salaries and then handed over responsibility of raises to the now-defunct Compensation Review Board.
Experts say the only way to truly address judicial salaries is to change the state's constitution. That process requires passage of an amendment by at least 60 percent of the members of both chambers of the state legislature and then approval by voters.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted to halt raises for judges in 2003, but the judges sued, won and now get annual raises based on a complicated formula determined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state Supreme Court ruled that the governor and legislature would overstep their powers by taking away compensation from an equal and independent branch of the government. Since 2004, the four types of judges in Illinois have seen their pay increase an average of 21.5 percent.
According to state courts administration officials, judges will receive an automatic 0.9 percent cost-of-living increase next year. That amounts to a raise of $1,546 for associate judges, $1,627 for circuit judges, $1,773 for appellate judges and $1,884 for Supreme Court justices. Overall, that's an additional $1,551,969 for all current judges combined.
"It's a balancing act to where you want to pay the judiciary a salary that attracts and retains quality judges, but you don't want the salary to become so high that it's a motivation to run where you won't get individuals who want to be a judge for the right reasons," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican who is minority spokesman for the judiciary committee. "It depends on the judge and jurisdiction. Some judges are grossly underpaid and some are grossly overpaid. We have a one-size-fits-all judicial salary template, which might need reviewing."
Some legislators suggested that geography should play a part in judicial salaries. Downers Grove Republican state Sen. Ron Sandack said a circuit court judge's salary goes a lot further in rural parts of the state than it does in Chicago and the collar counties.
Caseload statistics presented in a 2010 report from the Supreme Court show wide variances of workloads between the state's 23 circuit court districts. On the high end, DuPage County led with 7,030 cases filed per judge, while judges in the downstate 8th District that includes Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Mason, Menard, Pike and Schuyler counties received an average of 2,518 cases per judge. In Cook County, trial judges averaged 3,710 cases filed per judge. Lake County trial judges averaged 6,217 cases in 2010 and McHenry County trial judges averaged 5,646 cases. The circuit court district that includes Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties saw 5,326 new case filings per judge, according to the state report.
"Then you're looking at where we're getting the most bang for the buck," Sandack said.
Geographic pay differentials are not uncommon nationally, said Greg Hurley, an analyst who tracks judicial salaries for the National Center for State Courts. But he noted the differentials generally account for a small percentage increase to the base pay of a judge.
"The level of court is going to dictate the amount you make as a judge, not the geography of where you're from," he said.
In Illinois, the legislature is also hamstrung in the number of judges the state has because the posts are constitutionally determined based on population. In the most recent census, some circuits lost judges, but more judicial positions were created than lost statewide, according to Tybor. That's despite a negligible population growth.
"There are 13 more associate (positions) than there were," he said.
That amounts to $2.2 million in additional judicial salaries. It's worth noting that not all associate judge positions in the state are currently filled, according to the state court administrator's website.
Yet another wrinkle is that the legislature has the ability to create circuit court judicial positions, but no authority to eliminate them. Legislators say the state's financial problems and the judiciary's unwillingness to forgo raises has made them much more hesitant to create judicial positions that aren't required by law. Some have tried to limit the growth and cost of the state's judiciary, but with little success.
"They're always asking for more judges, but we've tried to keep it under control as much as we can," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. "The problem is, if you challenge them, you go in front of them."
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