Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Latest Departure From District Bench Shows Need for Pay Raise — Collins
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The impending resignation of Judge Stephen G. Larson from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California demonstrates the urgent need for congressional action on both judicial salaries and creation of additional judgeships, Chief Judge Audrey M. Collins said yesterday.
With Larson leaving the court Nov. 2, another judge and two magistrates having left in the past year and another judge retiring to become a private mediator next year, Collins wrote in a six-page release, “the Central District of California faces a crisis of retention.”
Yesterday’s statement by Collins was the first public announcement of what Larson, 44, had previously told his colleagues—he is resigning because he has seven children between the ages of 2 and 13 and will not be able to send them to college on his $169,000 annual salary.
Larson said he had accepted “the reality” that legislation to increase salaries, at least to the level they would have reached had Congress granted annual cost-of-living increases since the last general pay raise, is unlikely to pass in the current economic and political climate.
Larson had been a judge, sitting in Riverside, since 2006. He was a magistrate judge from 2000 until his appointment as district judge.
Before becoming a magistrate judge, Larson served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the district, rising to chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force and coordinator of the Russian Organized Crime Unit. He could not be reached for comment on his future plans.
Collins summarized the court’s situation:
“Between 1998 and August 2009, eight federal district judges from the Central District resigned or retired from the federal court system. Five judges retired or resigned to join JAMS, the largest private alternative dispute resolution provider in the world, where neutrals have the potential to earn the equivalent of a district judge’s annual salary in a matter of months. Two resigned to accept state judicial appointments, at a higher salary and better health benefits.
“This crisis is due in large part to two factors: stagnating judicial compensation and ever-increasing caseloads. These factors affect federal judges throughout the country, but the Central District has been particularly hard hit by both.”
The seven counties of the Central District, she noted, have a high cost of living, and judicial workloads—particularly in the Eastern Division where Larson sits—have skyrocketed here because of serious crime, complex litigation in fields like intellectual property, and an increase in consumer credit, Truth-in-Lending, and foreclosure and other real property cases related to the economic downturn.
“With only two district judges in the Eastern Division, each Eastern Division judge has received an average of 39 removal cases every month since last fall — while judges in the Western and Southern Divisions have received an average of just nine removal cases per month,” the judge wrote. “The burden on the Eastern Division requires the court to reassign many cases, inconveniencing litigants and requiring them to travel to Los Angeles or Santa Ana to have their cases heard.”
Collins acknowledged that the president has recently nominated candidates to fill two vacancies in the district, but with three more seats to be vacant by next March, “even prompt action on the remaining vacancies will not immediately solve the lingering problems stemming from the length of time past vacancies in the Central District have remained unfilled.”
The chief judge, noting that “Congress has not enacted a judgeship bill in 19 years,” urged passage of S. 1653, “The Federal Judgeship Act of 2009,” which, if enacted, would create four permanent and one temporary judgeship for the district.
She also urged lawmakers to address “[t]he deteriorating level of judicial salary,” which, Collins said, “saps the morale of judges and taxes the financial ability of even the most dedicated judges to remain on the bench when other, far more lucrative, career options exist.”
Collins said she hoped that Larson’s “devastating” resignation would “serve to highlight” the situation.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company