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Fighting to Keep the Lights On

By Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier

March 27, 2018

Since the Great Recession and before, Illinois state government has struggled to meet its basic operating expenses. Increases in the income tax rate and bond issues helped ameliorate shortfalls this past year, resulting in reductions in the backlog of unpaid bills and providing much-needed relief to health care providers, recipients of state benefits, and vendors with whom the state does business. Still, progress is slow. The State Comptroller’s Office reports that for the period ending January 31, 2018, there were still more than $9.2 billion in outstanding bills payable from the General Revenue and Health Insurance Funds and nearly $950 million in accrued late-payment penalties.

The Judicial Branch has not been immune from these fiscal pressures. Although we constitute one of the three branches of Illinois state government and all necessary expenses incurred by us and mandated by law must be paid, even absent explicit appropriation by the legislature (Jorgensen v. Blagojevich, 211 Ill.2d 286, 311-14 (2004)), those doing business with the courts or providing health and dental care to state-paid court personnel have found themselves waiting in the same long payment lines as everyone else. Members of the court routinely receive overdue notices for rent and utilities for their chambers. Just recently the company that provides the court’s electronic research threatened to cut our service for nonpayment. At the local level, some of our chief circuit judges have been forced to bring suit against their county boards when budget cuts threaten the ability of the courts to meet their constitutional responsibilities.

It would be unrealistic to expect the situation to improve any time soon. Things may, in fact, get worse. While court expenses have continued to rise, funding from the state has been flat. The amount we receive in appropriations from the General Revenue Fund, $344.8 million, has not changed since FY2015. Through the extraordinary efforts of the Administrative Office and court personnel, various cost-containment measures, and enhanced efficiencies, we have thus far succeeded not only in maintaining core judicial branch functions, but also in launching new education and outreach initiatives designed to improve the quality of the judiciary and to make the courts more accessible to the public. Our ability to continue doing that, however, is being sorely tested. We are running out of corners to cut. By far our greatest expense, judicial salaries, grows yearly and is largely beyond our control. The number of authorized judicial positions, the amount judges are paid, and the annual raises judges are given are all dictated by law and cannot be changed by the court. The most we can do is defer filling vacancies, a measure we have already begun to implement.

Statutory probation reimbursements to the counties, funded through the judicial branch’s budget, are another substantial cost we have no authority to contain. There is universal agreement that probation-related services are an indispensable and extremely cost-effective component of our criminal justice system. Nevertheless, they require a significant, ongoing investment. In the growing competition for state appropriations, it is an investment that has been chronically underfunded.

To help offset years of higher judicial branch expenses but flat appropriations, the court has requested a 19.8% increase in its appropriation from the General Revenue Fund for FY2019. While this is significant relative to our current appropriation, it is infinitesimal when compared to the overall state budget. Even with this increase, the appropriation to the judicial branch ($410.8 million) would represent only about 1% of the $37.6 billion in total General Revenue Fund expenditures currently proposed by the Governor for FY2019. That sum, which would support an entire branch of government, is less than would be appropriated to some departments within the executive branch. As modest as that amount is, however, the Governor has proposed that we not only receive no increase, but that our appropriation be reduced to $286.2 million, 17% less than we are set to receive this year and over 43% less than the appropriation we are requesting for FY2019. A reduction of this magnitude would seriously compromise the court’s ability to perform its judicial duties on behalf of the people of our state.

Several years ago, Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz of the Oregon Supreme Court wrote that “the judiciary deserves priority funding, not only because it is a co-equal branch of government, but because courts stand at the intersection of every important social, political, and legal issue the states face.” De Muniz, The Invisible Branch, 100 Ky. L.J. 807, 815 (2011-2012). Judges and court personnel understand this well. For legislators and the public at large, it may not be so obvious. As we work toward securing adequate court funding – a responsibility all of us in the judicial branch must help shoulder – we must therefore do our best at every opportunity to explain to both voters and their elected representatives in Springfield the critical role played by courts in insuring the safety and vitality of their communities and in preserving the principles on which our rich and diverse democracy is based. If the courthouse lights go out because the utility bills come back marked “unpaid,” judges will not be the only ones left in the dark.