Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Proposal to Allow Supplemental Judicial Benefits Program Stalls
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A proposed bill to create a statewide supplemental judicial benefits program in response to a ruling striking down Los Angeles County’s payment of benefits to Superior Court judges beyond that fixed by state law will not go forward, a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg confirmed yesterday.
Telling the MetNews it was “not the right time” given the state’s current deficit and ongoing fiscal crisis, the spokesperson said Steinberg, D-Sacramento, had not given the proposed bill a number and would not be proceeding with a statewide or local “fix” to the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630.
However, Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Alan Parachini said yesterday that the court will continue to pay former Assemblyman Burt Margolin $10,000 per month from its operating budget for “lobbying and consulting” services in connection with the issue under a six-month contract that ends in April.
Harold P. Sturgeon, a county taxpayer represented by lawyers from the conservative legal organization Judicial Watch, brought suit in 2006 challenging the Los Angeles Superior Court’s “local judicial benefits,” which have been paid since the late 1980s.
The benefits 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 in 2007, on top of a state salary of $171,648 and benefits that all judges receive statewide.
But following a ruling by First District Court of Appeal Justice James Richman—who was specially assigned as the trial judge in the case—that the benefits were legal, the Fourth District’s Div. One held in October that the payments violate Art. VI, Sec. 19 of the California Constitution, which requires that the Legislature “prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record.”
Reasoning that the Legislature cannot delegate that authority to the county and that the benefits are “compensation,” Justice Patricia Benke wrote that “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 California Supreme Court denied review in December, and the ruling led Los Angeles judges to seek legislation maintaining their current benefits.
The proposed, but never introduced, bill reportedly would have allowed the Judicial Council to create a program of supplemental benefits for all judges that would gradually escalate, starting in 2011, to reach 20 percent of a judge’s salary by 2018.
Steinberg’s representative indicated the proposed bill’s language had been developed at the Judicial Council’s request in order to share with interested parties for analysis, but said the senator had opted not to move forward under the circumstances after vetting the proposal.
Parachini deferred comment on any specific statewide benefit proposals to the Administrative Office of the Courts, and said that the contract with Margolin did not involve “any consequential amount of court resources.” He declined to speculate on public perception of the use of such resources to lobby for judicial benefits.
He did note, however, that Judicial Watch on Friday sought an injunction to stop the Superior Court’s payment of the benefits, and said the Superior Court filed a request yesterday to be allowed to intervene in the case. Parachini added that he expected a hearing to take place in March.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company