Small claims courts are informal venues where litigants can resolve minor civil disputes. Court procedures are purposely simple, giving individuals with little legal knowledge the opportunity to file lawsuits without the assistance of an attorney. Small claims court judges come from diverse backgrounds. Education and experience requirements vary significantly from state to state and even from county to county. Regardless of qualification requirements, these judges decide cases involving breach of contract and landlord-tenant disputes, among other things.
Small claims court judges have different titles, depending on where they preside. Some states refer to small claims court judges as township court judges, while other states call them magistrates. Regardless of title, these judges' salaries vary due to jurisdictional differences concerning supplemental income. Considering these factors, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average salary of $119,270 for magistrates, judges and magistrate judges, as of 2010.
States divide courts into three primary categories: high courts, intermediate courts and trial courts. A 2012 survey released by the National Center for State Courts addresses regional differences in the salaries of judges who work in lower-tier courts. According to the survey, the salary range for judges in these courts was $104,170 to $180,802, as of 2012. Illinois and California provided the highest average annual salaries in the nation -- $180,802 and $178,789, respectively. South Dakota and Mississippi came in at the bottom. South Dakota paid its lower court judges an annual average of $110,377, while Mississippi ranked last -- its lower court judges received an annual average salary of just $104,170.
Other Contributing Factors
In many states, small claims court judges are part-time employees free to pursue careers outside of court. This means that annual income may vary substantially, depending on the income gained through other means of employment. In Indiana, for example, small claims court judges who work part-time or full-time may participate in employment outside of court. Part-time small claims court judges in Indiana may practice law, provided they avoid any conflicts of interest. In other words, they must be sure to avoid representing clients in the courts where they preside. Additionally, in locations where township boards set small claims courts judges' salaries, pay may vary based on longevity, among other things.
The BLS predicts a slower than average employment growth rate for the judiciary. In fact, it predicts employment will grow by a mere 7 percent between 2010 and 2020. Budgetary constraints -- along with low turnover rates -- are contributing factors. Low turnover rates are common where judges obtain their seats on the bench via election, because elected judges may typically seek re-election multiple times until the age of mandatory retirement.