That’s the salary of a Circuit Court Judge in Illinois. That salary, which is set by the state legislature, is no doubt one reason so many lawyers want to be a judge and are willing to spend thousands of dollars of their own money trying to get elected as a judge.
The hours of a judge generally aren’t too bad either, when compared to the hours that many lawyers work.
But judges and judicial candidates will tell you that money is not the reason they want to be a judge.
“The reason I want to be a judge was not focused on the salary,” said Judge David Navarro who is running in the March 20 Democratic primary in the 4th Judicial Subcircuit. “The reason is because I think it’s the culmination of a career spent in public service. If I focused on salary or money I would have moved to be in private practice earlier in my career toward a more lucrative position other than being with the State’s Attorney’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office. The salary is what the salary is but the job is what I’m focused on, not the salary.”
Kathryn Maloney Vahey, a veteran public defender running for judge, says that lawyers know how much judges make but the salary is not a motivating force for her.
“Everybody who’s working in a courtroom knows how much a judge is making,” Vahey said. “It’s something we all know, I don’t think it’s on my list of reasons why. I spent my career not chasing money.”
Public defenders are unionized and veteran public defenders like Vahey and judge candidate Jerry Barrido of Brookfield make a little more than $110,000 a year according to a Cook County salary database maintained by the Better Government Association. Salaries for prosecutors in the State’s Attorney’s office are comparable.
For many government attorneys becoming a judge is a nice way to cap a career and it provides a boost in salary as well as more regular hours.
Many judges in Cook County are former prosecutors.
The salary is better than what many small firm lawyers make although partners and experienced associates at the largest downtown corporate law firms make much more.
Judge John Michael O’Meara, also running to keep his seat on the bench in the March 20 primary, was a personal injury lawyer in private practice before being appointed to the bench in 2016. O’Meara says that he typically made about as much money in private practice as he does as a judge.
“Some years I’d be making more, some years I’d be making less, but it’s right in the ballpark of what I was making,” O’Meara said. “I can tell you I’m not doing it for the money.”
O’Meara says that the hours are better, and more regular, as a judge.
“The time constraints are much better,” O’Meara said.
Judicial candidates largely self-fund their own campaigns although they do get campaign contributions from friends and colleagues.
“It’s very humbling when you meet someone and they send you $25,” Vahey said.
But the prime source of campaign money for the local judicial candidates is their own money or money from close family members. All the local judicial candidates have received substantial campaign loans from themselves or close family members. Candidates generally loan their campaign committees money so that money that is not spent can be paid back. And, especially if they win, they can host fundraisers to pay back the loans.
According to state records O’Meara loaned his campaign $50,000. The campaign of Martin Reggi, who is running against O’Meara in a 4th subcircuit race, has received loans of $62,000 from himself and other family members. Reggi’s wife Allyson loaned the campaign $17,000, Reggi’s son Martin Jr., a law student, loaned his father’s campaign $25,000, and Reggi’s daughter Martha, a lawyer herself, loaned the campaign, $10,000. Both Reggi children listed the family home address in Riverside as their address on their campaign disclosure documents. Reggi’s brother in law loaned the campaign $5,400 and the candidate himself loaned his campaign $5,000. His older brother contributed $5,600 to the campaign, the maximum allowable contribution.
Navarro’s campaign has received $64,000 in loans: $40,000 from his wife Kelly, $14,000 from his father, and $10,000 from the candidate himself.
Vahey’s campaign is largely funded by a $70,000 loan from her father Brian Maloney, a retired physician for the New York City Fire Department.
“He said ‘I have the money set aside for you and your brother and if you think it would help you now you can have it now’ so that’s what that loan was,” Vahey said. “I’m very uncomfortable with the whole thing of it. I might have been more uncomfortable if I raised that money from people.”
Barrido and his wife Maria have loaned his campaign $20,344.15 according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Money is essential to a campaign.
“I think having money certainly increases your ability to be known and get the job,” Vahey said.
Judicial candidates spend their money on many of the same things that other candidates spend money on. Some like O’Meara and Vahey have billboards. O’Meara has three billboards and Vahey has two. Billboards cost at least $800 a month. Candidates pay campaign consultants to advise them how to run a campaign and to compose direct mail pieces. In subcircuit races they send out direct mail. They pay web developers to construct a web site. One of Vahey’s biggest expenses was to pay a lawyer to handle a petition challenge which knocked off the ballot the only other woman who had filed to run in her race.
Judicial candidates campaign by going door, greeting voters and handing out literature at train stations, appearing before fraternal groups, and just seeking out voters wherever they can find them.
“There is nothing that can replace going out and meeting people,” Vahey said.
Candidates generally go to as many political events as they can, often multiple nights a week, and go to bar association meetings. They generally introduce themselves and speak briefly about themselves and mix and mingle. There’s not a lot they can say about running for judge.
“It is extremely difficult to campaign as a judge,” O’Meara said. “In my opinion the judicial elections are the most important yet the least understood elections on the ballot in part because judges cannot talk about issues that are before them or might come before them which basically includes everything. So you cannot say I am for this or against this. You can’t express anything.”
Many judicial candidates find it uncomfortable acting as politicians, but if they want to win they have to learn how to do it.
“Judges are not good politicians, just by nature,” O’Meara said. “I’m not a very good person to talk about myself. I can talk about a lot of things but talking about myself kind of goes against my instinct. And having billboards and going to events and talking and so forth really puts me outside of my comfort zone, but it’s all part of the process. I understand you have to do it.”
Running for judge, or any office, is hard work. Candidates are out campaigning or showing their face many nights a week and on weekends, especially as the primary approaches. Candidates use social media to spread the word. They create Facebook pages for their campaigns and regularly update their Facebook pages with messages, videos, and photos.
Volunteers also play a big role. Navarro, who has deep roots in Riverside, said that more than 100 people are helping his campaign. Some go door to door while other call prospective voters.
All the candidates are probably looking forward to March 20 when the grind comes to an end.
“It’s been hard for my family,” Vahey said. “I certainly look forward to the day when I can put us all back together to a more home cooked meal kind of family that we were a couple of months ago.”