Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Research Attorneys Challenge Superior Court on Hiring Policy
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The union representing Los Angeles Superior Court research attorneys and law clerks yesterday invoked its right to arbitration, challenging the court’s decision to freeze the number of lawyers employed as research attorneys.
The decision to discontinue a practice of hiring law clerks as research attorneys upon satisfactory completion of the two-year clerkship violates the court’s contract with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 910, local President Michael W. Boggs said in his request.
Court officials rejected the union’s grievance last Thursday, saying the contract gives them the right to freeze the number of research attorneys in order to meet “the needs of the court.” The union maintains that the “needs” clause does not refer to budgetary concerns.
Presiding Judge Robert A. Dukes, in a March 21 memo to judicial officers, explained that the number of research attorneys has grown by more than 50 percent in the last 18 months. “The unintended increase in the number of Research Attorney positions raised the Court’s salary and employee benefits expenditures by $590,000 annually,” Dukes said in his memo.
The union and the court are two years into a three-year contract, the court’s first ever with the lawyers who review filings and research legal issues for judges. The unit voted to organize in 1999, reflecting the court’s move over time from a staff made up of recent graduates transitioning into the profession to one including career employees.
Prior to the contract, staff members who were members of the State Bar were called research attorneys and those who were not were called law clerks, but all were considered temporary employees. Under the contract, however, research attorneys are, in effect, civil servants not subject to termination without cause after a six-month probationary period.
Law clerks are hired for one year, renewable for a second year, following which they can become research attorneys if they receive positive evaluations.
Completion of the two-year clerkship, during which the employee is classified as a “temporary” member of the court’s workforce, is a prerequisite for hiring as a research attorney.
At the time the contract was entered into, there were 34 research attorneys and 71 law clerks. There are now 52 research attorneys and 53 law clerks.
Jobs for Three
The court, Boggs said, has agreed that three law clerks who were hired before the contract was signed will be given research attorney positions, although the commitment was not made in writing. It is unclear whether this means that the number of research attorney positions will remain at 55, or whether the number will “float back down to 52,” the union leader commented.
Dukes wrote in his memo:
“In recognition of the important role Law Clerks play in assisting judges, those positions have effectively been exempted from the court-wide hiring freeze, and we expect to continue to replace Law Clerks as they leave.”
But the court, in its current budget crunch, cannot continue to pay the difference between a law clerk’s salary and benefits and those of a research attorney—more than $30,000 annually—every time a law clerk completes his or her term satisfactorily, Dukes said. “In sum, an eligible Law Clerk may only become a Research Attorney if there is a vacant funded Research Attorney position,” the presiding judge wrote.
Boggs said an arbitrator must be chosen within 20 days, followed by a hearing within 45 days, but added that he was hoping to avoid that necessity.
“Hopefully, the court will have come to its senses by then,” he said. “Once the judges realize that their law clerks are going to be terminated, there is going to be an outcry from the judicial community, and I hope the court will reevaluate.”
That is unlikely, Assistant Presiding Judge William McLaughlin responded.
“I never want to say never,” McLaughlin said. “I could imagine that if a law clerk who is respected by an individual judge was required to leave because there wasn’t a research attorney position available...the judge would be concerned with that...but I don’t think that there would be a change of policy absent the money to implement any change.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company