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Watchdog Group Finds Taxpayer Dollars Fund Dismissed Judges' Pensions

Injustice Watch, a new watchdog reporting group in Chicago, looks at who judges Illinois judges and how taxpayers are footing the bill

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Injustice Watch, a new watchdog reporting group in Chicago, looks at who judges Illinois judges and how taxpayers are footing the bill. NBC 5 Investigates' Phil Rogers reports. (Published Monday, Nov. 23, 2015)

    When she was removed from the bench for shoving a sheriff’s deputy a day after launching into a 45-minute rant about racism, officials pointedly noted that Cook County Judge Cynthia Brim would no longer be receiving a $182,000 salary.

      But they neglected to mention the $152,000 she will continue to draw every year for the rest of her life.
     
    That’s because Illinois judges, even the ones removed from the bench for serious misconduct, still receive their pensions, and those retirement plans, heavily funded by taxpayers, can amount to 85 percent of the judge’s salary.
     
    Ironically, the agency responsible for investigating complaints against judges, the Judicial Inquiry Board, has faced repeated budget cuts in recent years, even as the workload has grown. The board fields about 500 complaints a year, but only a tiny number, about two a year, are ever reported out to the Illinois Courts Commission, the agency responsible for actually determining potential punishment. 
     
    “They get removed, but there aren’t a lot of consequences, we discovered,” says Rick Tulsky, of the nonprofit reporting group Injustice Watch. “And the process can take years, from the time of the misconduct, until there is an action.”
     
    Tulsky and his colleagues have analyzed the complaints levied against judges over the last 40 years. In that period, only seven jurists have been removed from the bench in Illinois. Unless the Inquiry Board makes a decision that a complaint has merit, it is never even revealed. 
     
    “A very small portion of complaints are made public,” Injustice Watch’s Emily Hoerner said. “It’s usually about two a year.”
     
    Let’s look at a typical year: In 2012, the Judicial Inquiry Board, received 526 complaints against judges.  Of those, 438, fully 83 percent, were closed fairly quickly. The agency says the majority of the complaints it receives come from disgruntled litigants, and in the words of Kathy Twine, the JIB’s executive director, “people mistake us for the appellate court.”
     
    That leaves 88 complaints. Of those, 62 were closed in 2012 after investigation. Another seven were dismissed after an explanation was received. A total of 19 judges were asked to appear before the board. Of those, two chose to retire either before or shortly after that appearance.
     
    It’s only after that rather laborious process that a complaint will ever get forwarded to the second agency, the Illinois Courts Commission, for possible adjudication. Since the system began in the 1970s, the cases of only 91 judges have made it that far. And again, only seven have been removed.
     
    “What you don’t want is a system that tars people unfairly,” Tulsky notes. “But at some point when a complaint is viewed as meritorious, there is a very long process that keeps the matter closed.”
     
    Even judges who leave the bench under a cloud -- like Cynthia Brim -- can still enjoy a hefty payday.  Brim did not respond to requests for comment about her case.
     
    Francis Golniewicz, removed from his job for being deceptive about where he lived and inflammatory comments from the bench, still receives over $89,000 per year. Golniewicz told reporters from Injustice Watch that he contributed from his salary toward his pension. “It’s not as if I’m earning something for nothing,” he said.
     
    Oliver Spurlock, who was accused of making sexually suggestive comments to women working in his courtroom, and having sex with a court reporter in his chambers, collects nearly $77,000 per year.  Spurlock did not return a call seeking comment. 
     
    Donald Behle stepped down amid allegations that he had been dating a woman while hearing her divorce case. His pension comes to over $41,000 a year. Behle refused to comment, when contacted by phone.
     
    And if a case is dismissed, or a judge receives a warning, that remains confidential.
     
    “Private admonishments never get made public,” Tulsky notes. “So we don’t know about how many cases there are, and we don’t know if the ones that are dismissed early are being properly handled early.”
     
    Injustice Watch notes that the budget in recent years has gone from more than $785,000 in 2009, to less than $680,000 in 2015.  In Pennsylvania, a smaller state than Illinois, they note that the Judicial Conduct Board has a budget of more than $1.5 million.
     
    And in Illinois, the agency did not even have its full complement of board members, from 2008 until this year.
     
    “It took years and years for those spots to be filled and there was no public outcry,” Tulsky says.  “Nobody knew!”
     
    Twine defends her agency, and suggests comparisons to other states aren’t fair.  “Every jurisdiction is different,” she says.
     
    Still, as the battle over dollars continues in Springfield, her agency is a textbook example of a state agency being asked to do more, with fewer resources.
     
    Indeed, the Illinois Auditor General complained in a report earlier this year, that he could not even get answers to his questions about the Judicial Inquiry Board.
     
    “The Judicial Inquiry Board has a growing inventory level of pending complaints concerning alleged misconduct or physical or mental incapacity of judicial officers,” the auditor wrote in the report.  “The growing inventory level increases the risk the board’s caseload will become unmanageable.”

    Injustice Watch is a non-partisan, not-for-profit, multimedia journalism organization that conducts in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.