top of page

Buying Justice

The best judges that money can buy?

Illinois Times

July, 1982

The ostensible topic that week was a legislative proposal to raise the pay of Illinois judges. The more interesting topic was whether it is appropriate, or even possible, to use private sector earnings of Illinois’s top attorneys as the standard for the public sector. Spoiler alert: This little essay did not settle the question.


For a change I decided to use logic rather than emotion in evaluating the case. My reasoning went like this: A) No nation has more laws, and less respect for them, than the U.S. B) Laws are largely written by and enforced by lawyers. C) Judges are lawyers, so, D) we should have no respect for judges.


I admit I'm not sure I got that right; I dropped out of Logic 101 after three weeks to recover from the painful condition we in the late '60s used to call placard wrist. I undertook this tortuous analysis in response to the recent passage by the General Assembly of a pay raise for the state's judges. Their pay would go up by about a third on average, up to a maximum of $75,000 for state supreme court judges. Gov. Jim Thompson, who is rumored to covet a judgeship upon his retirement from politics in spite of his inability to come to a firm decision about anything, signed the bill. This time of year, not all the nest-feathering around the statehouse is going on in trees.


The raise will be the judges' first since 1979. Inflation has so eroded the purchasing power of our jurists that they can barely keep up with their catamaran payments. Country club membership fees have ballooned ominously, and the price of golf slacks has come to comprise a significant element in the Consumer Price Index.


One wants to sympathize. Alas, the case for higher pay for judges has yet to be proven, even though the General Assembly's argument in favor of more money is plausible, and has at least some connection with public policy. A partner in a successful private law firm, they argue, can earn two or three times what a judge can earn in Illinois. As a result, good judges are leaving the bench as fast as their wing-tips can carry them.


Dire news, if true. I remain a little leery of using private sector earnings as a standard for public pay, however. For one thing, there are some things more important than money. Being named to a judgeship, for example, confers upon the meanest lawyer a dignity he would otherwise not merit, rather like the effect that a saving marriage used to have on the reputation of a pregnant woman.


Besides, I haven't seen any list of the good judges Illinois has lost to private practice. I would like to see such a list—not of the judges who have left, but the good ones who have left, and the good ones who have left because of money and not because they wanted to retire or didn't like the paperwork or couldn't stand handball.


The fact is that we no more know what a good judge is worth than we know what a good nurse or a good professor is worth. Deciding on a figure requires that we first consider what it is a judge does. A traditional reformist rationale for higher pay for public officials is that higher pay kills the temptation to accept bribes. One can always question whether honesty that is bought is worth the price, but it seems to work, and Illinois judges are notably less corrupt than they were a generation ago. Not necessarily better, but less corrupt.


In return for their pay we expect our judges, in addition to being honest, to take seriously their obligations as public servants and to do their duty on behalf of the larger public good, even in the face of the criticism of aggrieved parties. This is essentially the same standard to which we also hold meter maids, however, and somehow one expects more. A knowledge of law, for example, and occasional wisdom.


That may be expecting too much. In January Illinois Issues magazine published the results of a survey of Illinois judges by Sangamon State University's Center for Legal Studies. The project (the work of Stephen Daniels, Rebecca Wilkin, and James Bowers) surveyed a sampling of the state's 654 sitting trial judges. SSU's typical judge came to the bench from private practice (67 percent) while most of his colleagues (24 percent) came from government posts, either elective or appointed. Most judges claimed special expertise in the area of criminal law—a dubious credential, since they also claimed that only about 12 percent of their dockets consisted of criminal cases. Nor do they apparently strive to broaden their expertise; few judges take special training after they reach the bench.


In fact, the judges ranked a knowledge of the law only fifth on the list of assets needed on the job. Why? As D., W., and B. note, "The judges see their function as a limited and pragmatic one . . . ." Most bench work, they point out, is "quite routine and administrative."


We have, in other words, appointed people who are untrained in administration to do what is (at the lower levels anyway) essentially an administrative job. This may explain the tedious appellate process, the stultifying procedural detail, the vagaries in sentencing which have made the phrase "criminal justice system" so risible.


The crucial part of the judicial selection process occurs not in the locker room, as popularly supposed, but in the classroom. Few really first-class men or women go into law in the first place, and those who do quickly come to regret it, and begin to daydream of the day they can afford to get out and open a little wine bar someplace.


Indeed, the problem with judges is not that they are poorly paid lawyers but that they are lawyers, period. The SSU survey confirms what common sense suggests, namely that our judges are heart and soul of the establishment. They grow up breathing its values, and regard it with the grateful respect with which the rest of us might regard a favorite aunt who died and left us a million bucks on condition we keep the family name out of the papers. Their limited notions of the functions of the judiciary are an inheritance of their training. Interestingly, the survey reveals that the longer a judge is on the bench—the longer it has been, in other words, since he functioned as a lawyer—the more generous a view he takes of the courts' role. Unlike so many other professions, it is often the younger practitioners of the law who are the more conservative.


It is my suspicion that the best judges in Illinois are not on the bench but are walking around on the street. I suspect that more than a few of them might be willing to work for less than $60,000 a year too. No special training is required to make laws, after all. Why is it needed to administer them? ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page