John Roska: Judicial elections explained

John Roska: Judicial elections explained

Q: Can you explain judicial elections? How long are they elected for?

A: It's hard to keep the different kinds of judges straight, along with their selection process. Things can get a little murky.

For starters: Illinois judges are elected, but not re-elected. Federal judges are appointed, for life.

Illinois has three main levels of judges: supreme, appellate and circuit. All Illinois judges are elected, in partisan elections. Supreme and appellate court judges serve 10-year terms; circuit judges serve six-year terms.

At all three levels, Republican and Democratic candidates for judge can fight it out in the primary, and then face off against each other in the general election. But primaries aren't always contested. If only one party has candidates in the primary, that winner will later win an unopposed general election.

It's also possible to combine an unopposed primary with an unopposed general "election" to become a judge. That occasionally happens at the circuit judge level.

Circuit judges serve at the county level. "Resident" circuit judges are elected in only one county, and only serve that county. "Full" circuit judges run in all the counties of their circuit, and can serve in all those counties.

To muddy the waters a bit, there's a second level of circuit judges: associate. Associate circuit judges are not elected. They're appointed, for four-year terms, by the circuit judges in their circuit. They handle everything but certain criminal cases — and can do those with permission.

Some associate circuit judges run to become regular circuit judges ("resident" or "full"). But an associate who keeps getting reappointed can be a judge for years without ever being elected.

Although all circuit judges are elected, they can start out being appointed. That's done to fill vacancies, when a previously elected circuit judge dies or retires. The appointed judge can serve the predecessor's unexpired term, and then run to be elected in his own right.

That means that two kinds of appointed judges can run for election. An associate judge can run to become a regular circuit judge, as can someone appointed to fill a vacant circuit judge position.

When those candidates run for election, it can look like they're running for re-election. But they're not. They're running for the first time to be elected to a full term as a regular circuit judge. Previously, they were either appointed as an associate judge, or to fill a vacant circuit judge position.

To make things muddier, Illinois judges are not re-elected. When their terms expire, they can run for "retention." It's just "yes" or "no" to keep the judge, so they "run" unopposed, nonpartisan.

Although retention requires a supermajority — 60 percent must vote to retain — losing a retention election is extremely rare.

As of 2012, the seven Illinois Supreme Court justices earn $210,128 a year. The 53 appellate court justices, in five different districts, make $197,770 a year.

There are about 520 Illinois circuit judges (about half in Cook County). They earn $181,479 a year. The approximately 385 associate judges make $172,406 a year.

In federal court, trial judges make $174,000 a year, and appellate justices $184,500 a year. Chief Justice Roberts gets $223,500 a year. At the University of Illinois, the top "counsel" makes $298,637 a year.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.