Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Lawmakers Pass Bill to Keep Local Benefits for Trial Judges
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Legislature has approved a bill that would allow counties to continue paying benefits to supplement the salaries of Superior Court judges.
Lawmakers, locked in over the weekend as they battled to fix the state budget, approved SBX2 11 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. The bill, which was introduced on Wednesday of last week, passed the Senate Saturday by a vote of 32-6 and passed the Assembly Sunday by a vote of 69-3, clearing it for action by the governor.
The bill references last year’s ruling in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630, which held that benefits that can top $46,000 per year per judge, paid by the county to Los Angeles Superior Court judges, were unconstitutional because only the Legislature could determine judicial compensation.
The bill declares that “[n]umerous counties and courts established local or court supplemental benefits to retain qualified applicants for judicial office, and trial court judges relied upon the existence of these longstanding supplemental benefits provided by the counties or the court.”
Under SBX2 11, counties and courts that currently supplement judges’ salaries with benefits will continue to do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. Notwithstanding any such termination, however, benefits would continue to be paid until the end of each judge’s term, or, at the county’s election, until each judge then receiving benefits leaves the bench.
The bill also immunizes all public entities and officers against any liability resulting from past payment of local judicial benefits and directs the Judicial Council to report to the Legislature, no later than the end of this year, with regard to the “statewide benefits inconsistencies.”
Judges in other counties have long complained that their benefits are far less generous than those paid by Los Angeles County, which 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.
SBX2 specifies that the benefits that counties or individual courts may pay “shall include federally regulated benefits...and deferred compensation plan benefits, such as 401(k) and 457 plans...and may also include professional development allowances.
Sterling Norris of Judicial Watch, who represented the plaintiff in Sturgeon, told the MetNews yesterday he had just learned of the bill’s adoption and had not yet read it.
Richard I. Fine, a Beverly Hills attorney who was not involved in Sturgeon but has long attacked the benefits, said it was “outrageous that they can pass a bill that will remove the basic rights of over 10 million residents of Los Angeles County within days and will further the corruption that has occurred in this county while they cannot pass a budget in months.”
Fine, who called upon the governor to veto the bill, said he thought it was unconstitutional because it does not explicitly define the benefits as “compensation,” delegates to the counties the authority to decide if and when the benefits terminate, and impermissibly permits counties to create monetary incentives for candidates to seek judgeships, which he said is exclusively a state function.
Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Alan Parachini said the court, which hired lobbyist and former Assemblyman Burt Margolin at the rate of $10,000 per month to seek legislation undoing Sturgeon, said the court thought it was appropriate to “work with the [California Judges Association] and the county to cure the legislative defect” identified by the Court of Appeal.
He declined to handicap the bill’s prospects of becoming law. “I would never try to predict what Gov. Schwarzenegger will do, he said.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company