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 or magistrates decide cases involving breach of contract and landlord-tenant disputes, among other things.
Judge Salary Range
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 magistrates' or 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 $133,840 for magistrates, judges and magistrate judges, as of 2018.
Regional Comparisons for Judge Salaries
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 $118,384 to $208,000, as of 2018. Illinois and California provided the highest average annual salaries in the nation – $198,075 and $200,042 respectively. South Dakota paid its lower court judges an annual average of $126,346 , Kentucky paid $124,620, while Kansas ranked last -- its lower court judges received an annual average salary of just $123,038.
A supreme court justice salary is significantly higher in all states. In Illinois and California, a supreme court justice salary is $229,345 and $244,179 respectively, a hefty six figures more than their lower court brethren.
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 an average employment growth rate for the judiciary. It predicts employment will grow by 5 percent, roughly the same as all other jobs, between 2016 and 2026. 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.