Friday, January 12, 2007
Visiting Jurist Rejects Challenge to Local Judges’ Extra Benefits
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Court of Appeal justice specially assigned to the Los Angeles Superior Court has rejected a challenge to the benefits paid to local judges by the county, over and above those given all superior court judges under state law.
Justice James Richman of the First District’s Div. Two Tuesday granted the county’s motion for summary judgment in an action by Harold P. Sturgeon, a county taxpayer claiming that the “local judicial benefits” paid to Los Angeles Superior Court judges violate the state Constitution and the 1997 law under which the state took over trial court funding.
Sturgeon was represented by lawyers from the conservative legal organization Judicial Watch, including Sterling E. Norris, who told the MetNews yesterday that the group would appeal.
The benefits at issue, which include participation in the county’s “MegaFlex” cafeteria benefits program and a “professional development allowance,” now total between $35,000 and $40,000 annually per judge, Norris said.
Richman concluded that allowing the county to pay the local benefits is consistent with the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997. “It is, moreover, the only reading consistent with the express intent of the Legislature...‘that no personnel employed in the court system as of July 1, 1997, shall have their salary or benefits reduced as a result of this act,’” the jurist wrote.
Richman also cited, as a separate basis for the benefits, a 1959 law which provides in part that “[e]mployees of the superior court in each county having a population of over 2,000,0000 shall be entitled to step advancement, vacation, sick leave, holiday benefits and other leaves of absence and other benefits as may be directed by rules of the court” and that the extension of such benefits “may be made applicable by rule to court personnel, including but not limited to jurors, and judges.”
While the plaintiff argued that it was “unclear at best, whether trial judges are or even should be considered ‘employees’ of the superior court,” Richman said such argument was “at best curious, and at worst disingenuous” since Rule 1.12 of the local rules expressly makes “all County of Los Angeles benefits extended to employees and local officers by local ordinance” applicable to judges, among others.
Richman also rejected the argument that the benefits are unconstitutional as a gift of public funds or waste.
He cited several cases holding that public agencies may award retroactive pay increases to their employees for work already performed, based on findings that the raises served legitimate public purposes.
The same reasoning applies to discretionary local judicial benefits, Richman said. “It cannot be gainsaid that the County had, and has, a legitimate interest in attracting and retaining qualified judges,” he wrote, saying the benefits are a reasonable response to the high cost of living in the region.
He also rejected the plaintiff’s waste argument, saying the county had duly considered the issue and expressly budgeted the funds.
Norris said the trial judge’s ruling was “not unexpected” and that he has always believed that the case would have to be resolved in the Court of Appeal or the state Supreme Court.
While Richman was assigned from outside the county, “it’s very difficult to get around” the fact that the plaintiff was asking a judge to rule on benefits paid to other judges.
But Jason Murray, a Jones Day attorney representing the county—the court and its judges were not parties to the litigation—said Richman “got it exactly right.” He added that the issue of whether payment of such benefits is necessary to attract and keep capable judges had been extensively studied by county officials with the assistance of outside consultants, but “apparently the plaintiffs just don’t like the way they do it.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company