Tuesday, October 14, 2008
C.A. Holds Local Judges’ Extra Benefits Unconstitutional
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Los Angeles County’s payment of benefits to Los Angeles Superior Court judges, over and above those given all superior court judges under state law, violates the California Constitution, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
First District Court of Appeal Justice James Richman, who was specially assigned to the case, ruled last year that the benefits, which have been paid since the late 1980s, were legal.
But Justice Patricia Benke, writing Friday for the Court of Appeal, said the payments violate Art. VI, Sec. 19 of the Constitution, which requires that the Legislature “prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record.”
Because the Legislature cannot delegate that authority to the county, Benke said, “the practice of the county...of providing Los Angeles County superior court judges with employment benefits, in addition to the compensation prescribed by the Legislature, is not permissible.”
The court reinstated an action by Harold P. Sturgeon, a county taxpayer, challenging the “local judicial benefits” that Richman upheld. Sturgeon was represented by lawyers from the conservative legal organization Judicial Watch.
Cafeteria Benefits Program
The benefits at issue include participation in the county’s “MegaFlex” cafeteria benefits program—which allows a beneficiary to receive additional taxable income equal to 19 percent of salary, or benefits costing the county an equal amount—along with a “professional development allowance” and a 401(k) match of up to four percent of the judge’s salary.
Los Angeles Superior Court judges who received the maximum 401(k) match totaled $46,436 in county benefits last year, on top of a state salary of $171,648 and benefits that all judges receive statewide.
Benke agreed with Richman that Sturgeon could not prevail on either of two other arguments—that the local benefits violate the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, under which the state replaced the counties as the primary funder of trial courts, or that the benefits are unconstitutional as a gift of, or waste, of public funds.
But the justice parted company with the trial judge in opining that the benefits are “compensation” within the meaning of Art. VI, Sec. 19, and thus can only be authorized by the Legislature.
The jurist cited two attorney general opinions from the 1970s suggesting that counties could not treat judges as county employees for purposes of providing benefits beyond those mandated statewide by the Legislature.
Benke rejected the county’s argument that the those opinions no longer have weight in light of the 1987 enactment of Government Code Sec. 1241, which reads:
“Whenever a section of the California Constitution uses both the terms ‘salary’ and ‘compensation,’ with respect to a public officer or employee, the terms shall apply only to salary.”
The purpose of that section, the justice explained, was to “exclude[e] employee benefits from the term ‘compensation’ wherever the terms ‘compensation’ and ‘salary’ appeared in a single provision of the Constitution.” But courts defer to legislative construction of constitutional provisions only when they “are by fair and reasonable interpretation capable of a meaning consistent with...the Constitution,” she said.
“Compensation,” as used in Sec. 19, cannot reasonable be read as synonymous with “salary” and thus the section does not allow counties to pay benefits that are distinguishable from salary, Benke said.
“Although in many contexts ‘salary’ is used interchangeably with ‘compensation’...’salary’ is usually defined somewhat more narrowly than compensation,” the jurist explained. Several dictionaries define salary as a fixed amount paid periodically for services, she noted, while compensation is defined to include other types of consideration for services rendered.
“Given the breadth of the term ‘compensation,’ any common understanding of it includes the employment benefits the county provides its judges,” Benke wrote. “In this regard it is significant for us that in a host of cases that have arisen since the middle of the last century, when such benefits became relatively commonplace, courts have uniformly determined such benefits are part of an employee’s compensation, salary or wages.”
The fact that the benefits create a huge disparity between the remuneration of Los Angeles Superior Court judges and those in other counties “implicates the very reasons the Legislature was given plenary power over judicial compensation” by constitutional amendment, Benke said.
The justice went on to reject the argument that the Legislature has “prescribed” the local benefits within the meaning of Sec. 19.
“We have been unable to identify any enactment of the Legislature which prescribes the judicial benefits the county pays its judges,” Benke wrote. . The justice disagreed with the county and the trial judge that the benefits are valid under a provision of the Trial Court Funding Act, also known as the Lockyer-Isenberg legislation, which says 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.”
Applying that phrase to the Los Angeles Superior Court county benefits, the justice said, would mean that only judges who joined the court before July 1, 1997 would receive the benefits, and would also be inconsistent with the “as a result of this act” language.
“However, these defects are relatively minor compared with the absence in Lockyer-Isenberg of any standard or inherent safeguard by which future increases or decreases in judicial benefits would be regulated,” she wrote. “The fact the county itself has elected to tie its judicial benefits to the benefits it provides other salaried employees is not a substitute for a legislative mandate that it do so.”
In a footnote, however, Benke suggested that the benefits might be lawful, at least in part, under Art. VI, Sec. 20, which provides for judicial retirement benefits based on age or disability. That issue was not litigated in the trial court, however, the justice explained.
The county’s lead attorney in the appeal, retired Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Elwood Lui of Jones Day, declined comment.
Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Stephen Czuleger said the court was “disappointed with the current outcome of the case,” but that further comment would be inappropriate, both because the case remains pending and because the court is not a party to it.
One judge, speaking anonymously, said yesterday that court officials were in conversations all weekend about how to respond to the ruling, and that the court’s rejection of Sec. 1241 could negatively impact as many as 92 percent of California judges, and trial court employees as well.
Sterling E. Norris, the lead attorney for Judicial Watch in the case, could not be reached for comment.
Richard Fine, a local attorney who had no involvement in the Sturgeon appeal but has been attacking the benefits for years, told the MetNews he feels vindicated. Fine is currently challenging a State Bar Court judge’s recommendation that he be disbarred for engaging in abusive litigation tactics in cases, including those in which he has argued that judges’ acceptance of the local benefits places them in a conflict of interest when the county is a party to litigation.
“It’s a great day for the people,” he said. “We know that the judicial system will not be going forward with this in our face. I’m grateful to Judicial Watch for bringing this case.”
The ruling, he said, should result in dismissal of five of the 11 counts in the judicial discipline proceedings against him, Fine said.
The case is Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, D050832.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company