Cook County will hire nine associate judges at a cost of $2.1 million in the first year, even though the current 415 judges already have caseloads lighter than the state average.
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans has announced 18 finalists for the nine posts despite critics' concerns that the positions might be unnecessary as workloads and the county's population continue to shrink.
Cook County judges by the numbers415: Current roster of trial judges
272: Current circuit judges
143: Current associate judges
9: Vacant associate judge posts
$73,740,110: Current combined annual salaries of Cook County judges
$1,545,858: Salaries for nine new judges
$27,482,939: 2012 taxpayer pension contribution for current Cook County judges
$576,141: Additional taxpayer pension contribution for nine new judges
Source: Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and State Employees' Retirement System
Evans submitted the finalists' names -- 10 men and 8 women -- to the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts late last week. Within the next two weeks, that agency will send each of Cook County's 272 circuit court judges a secret ballot with the names of the judicial candidates. The county's 143 associate judges do not get a vote.
The circuit court judges will vote for up to nine candidates and return the ballots to the state court administrator. Results are expected in late April or early May.
The 18 finalists were chosen from 232 applicants, according to a release from Evans' office. Circuit judges will have an opportunity to meet with the finalists at three separate receptions in Chicago, with two this week and one next week.
Evans did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the need to fill the vacancies.
Associate judge posts are based on a county's population, and Cook County saw a steep drop in the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Also, a Daily Herald investigation last week showed that Illinois circuit judges are the highest paid in the nation who receive constitutionally mandated pay raises every year that will cost Illinois taxpayers $172.6 million in salaries alone in 2012.
The nine new junior trial judges would add $1,545,858 to that figure.
In addition to their salaries, the state's judges will cost taxpayers another $63.6 million in pension contributions this year.
While most judges contribute 11 percent of their salaries to their pensions, the state contributes at a rate of 37.27 percent, said Tim Blair, director of the State Employees' Retirement System. That amounts to $576,141 more for the nine new judges.
But some are also looking at the judges' workload and questioning the expense of new judges.
"As we're doing in Cook County with these performance matrices by going through each department and asking how they compare to the private industry, we have to look at the judiciary the same way," said Cook County Board Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Republican from Bartlett. "We should not hire those people unless it's absolutely necessary."
A 2010 Illinois Supreme Court study of state courts indicated judges in Cook County each averaged 3,710 new cases filed that year. The state average was 4,179 new cases. DuPage County judges handled an average of 7,030 new cases apiece in 2010, while Lake and McHenry county judges averaged 6,217 and 5,646 new case filings, respectively. Judges in the circuit court district that contains Kane County each averaged 5,326 new cases that year, the report stated.
"It's about case management," said Gregg Goslin, a Cook County Board Republican commissioner from Glenview. "Why are they so bogged down? It must be the management of the courtrooms. You go to Rolling Meadows (courthouse) at 2:30 in the afternoon and you can roll a bowling ball through there and not hit anyone."
While taxpayers across the state combine to cover the salaries and pension costs for judges, Cook County residents do pay a $500 stipend to each judge in the county. That costs Cook taxpayers more than $200,000 a year. The nine new judges will add another $4,500 to that tab.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declined to comment on the county's judicial costs, including the stipend. No one at the county could explain the necessity for the stipend. It's simply another guarantee in the state's Constitution.