Senator: Supreme Court plea for funding increase ‘almost an insult’

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The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin published this piece in print on Thursday, April 19, 2018. The jump is below.

Published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on April 19, 2018

By Andrew Maloney and Rebecca Anzel
Law Bulletin staff writer and correspondent


SPRINGFIELD — While careful to note Illinois’ perennial fiscal challenges, the chief justice of the state’s top court asked legislators today for a nearly 20 percent bump in funding.

The Illinois Supreme Court is requesting $410.6 million from the state’s checkbook account for the next fiscal year after getting $344.8 million the last four years.

But some members of a Senate budget panel where Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier appeared Thursday shot back at the idea of an increase, pinning some of the money woes on previous court decisions, with one member calling the request for increased funding “almost an insult to this committee.”

In one exchange, Sen. Thomas Chapin Rose II, a Mahomet Republican, suggested Illinois judge salaries are too high. Karmeier responded that a 1992 law made cost-of-living adjustments part of judges’ salaries, and thus, outside the legislature’s control.

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“In retrospect, that may be unfortunate,” he told the panel, noting that interpretation was solidified in the 2004 high court decision Jorgensen v. Blagojevich. “We went from being in the lower half of compensation for judicial officers [in the country] to the top, now.”

Rose said he appreciated the candor.

“And honestly, that’s the best answer that’s ever been given by someone sitting in your shoes when I asked that question,” he said. “And the fact that you said that maybe in hindsight it wasn’t the best decision, that at least is an acknowledgment, which I’ve never had before. So I appreciate that.”

Sen. Jim Oberweis was not quite as amicable in his questioning.

The North Aurora Republican has previously railed against judicial salaries as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said this morning the court’s request “makes no sense,” that the state has “extreme financial stress” and that asking for an increase of 15 to 20 percent is “almost an insult to this committee.”

“It says that you don’t recognize what is going on in the state of Illinois, and perhaps the decisions rendered by the Illinois Supreme Court were another indication that you don’t recognize the severe financial stress that we’re in,” Oberweis said.

The high court has recently issued decisions saying the state constitution does not allow lawmakers to cut public worker and retiree benefits. State retirement systems are still underfunded by tens of billions of dollars. The justices also declined the chance to weigh in on which payments should be made during a budget impasse that lasted over two years. The stalemate resulted in automated spending that state coffers could not match.

Karmeier responded to Oberweis by saying that “the lack of revenue is the great problem,” and said he took issue with the idea that the court asking for more money would recklessly drive up costs, pointing to probation services as a savings tool and noting that is what gets hurt when the court’s overall budget takes a hit.

After the hearing this morning, Karmeier told reporters he understood the senator’s complaint.

“But I think it’s more forward-thinking to say, ‘What does that extra money do and how does it save?’ Because it really does,” he said. “And I understand that he says, ‘Well, everybody says if you give me another $10, I’ll save you $100.’ Well, our studies have shown what probation does. It’s clear. If we take 100 people and don’t put them into prison, we’re going to save $230,000.”

Judicial salaries make up half of the court’s request from the state’s primary checkbook, the General Revenue Fund, at $205.3 million. The Supreme Court justices themselves are making about $230,000 per year, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Probation reimbursements would account for just under one-third of the total ask, at $132.4 million. Funding for all other court operations, including operations of the lower courts, e-filing initiatives and things like foreign language interpreters, would come in at $72.8 million.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner suggested earlier this year the high court’s budget should be cut to $286.2 million. Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, noted at least $10 million would be cut from probation services under that scenario.

“If we were to implement the governor’s budget, what would be the consequences?” she asked.

Karmeier said it would be “catastrophic.”

“If we had the cut it would basically decimate the third branch of government. The judicial branch could not operate. We would be not only affecting probation, but every operation that we have,” he said. “That’s a completely, I think, unrealistic request.”


The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin originally published this piece online here.