Court Battle Ensues After Justices Order Pay Raise

By David Fein | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - State Supreme Court justices in Illinois, at odds with the administration of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich over judicial salaries, have attempted to take matters into their own hands.

The justices on July 24 ordered cost of living raises, retroactive to July 1, 2002, for more than 900 judges in the state. They did so even after Blagojevich on July 3 had vetoed the bill containing the pay raises.

The state Supreme Court says the Illinois Constitution ensures that judges' salaries will not be diminished during their terms in office. But state Comptroller Daniel W. Hynes rejected the latest pay vouchers submitted to his office, arguing that the justices had no authority to bypass the Blagojevich administration by issuing their own administrative order.

Hynes did emphasize that he was not challenging the Illinois Supreme Court's role as the ultimate decision-maker in the matter, just that the issue needed to be decided in open court. Two lower court judges have already filed suit against the governor and state comptroller over not receiving cost of living pay adjustments.

Dupage County Circuit Court Judge Ann Jorgensen and Judge Stuart Nudelman of Cook County filed the suit July 25. Jorgensen is president of the Illinois Judges Association; Nudelman is the organization's immediate past president.

The suit contends that the Blagojevich administration's withholding of the cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) was unconstitutional and it demands that Hynes not only pay the judges a 2.8 percent COLA retroactive to July 1 of this year, but also a 3.8 percent COLA retroactive to July 1, 2002.

The justices last Thursday vacated their own administrative order regarding the pay raises. But a hearing, originally scheduled for Wednesday in the lower court lawsuit against Blagojevich and Hynes, was canceled and the case put on hold.

Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University Law professor feels the constitutional debate boils down to one major question.

"The underlying legal issue is whether the approved COLA is already a part of the judges' compensation, in which case it can't be withheld or whether it doesn't become a part of compensation until the appropriation is approved. That's a pure question of Illinois constitutional law," Lubet said.

State Senator John Cullerton (D-Chicago), sponsor of the COLA bill that Blagojevich vetoed, said the governor and comptroller are on the wrong side of the issue.

Based on the Illinois Constitution, Cullerton said, it would be illegal to eliminate the COLA from a judge's annual salary.

The lawsuit in the case has apparently headed off the possibility that the Illinois Supreme Court would find Hynes in contempt of court for disobeying a judicial order.

Former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who helped write the 1970 Illinois Constitution, supports the lawsuit, which she said would settle the dispute.

"I think it was not appropriate for the Supreme Court to just simply on its own enter an administrative order telling the comptroller to go ahead and pay the pay raises," Netsch said.

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