Monday, August 31, 2009
Judges’ Supplemental Benefits Withstand Another Challenge
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The legislation enacted early this year authorizing counties to continue paying benefits to supplement the salaries of Superior Court judges has withstood its first constitutional challenge, a judge has ruled.
In an order issued Aug. 20 and released Friday, First District Court of Appeal Justice James Richman, sitting on assignment as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, granted summary judgment in favor of Los Angeles County. The judge said SBX2 11 validly restored the authority of counties to grant benefits to judges over and above those given all judges under state law.
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, on top of a state salary of $171,648 and benefits that all judges receive statewide.
In the spring of 2006, Harold P. Sturgeon, a county taxpayer represented by lawyers from the conservative legal organization Judicial Watch, filed suit against the county seeking to have these payments—which have been paid since the late 1980s—declared unlawful and to enjoin future payments.
Richman found in favor of the county but was reversed last October by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630.
Appellate Court Ruling
Writing for Div. One, Justice Patricia Benke said that the payment of supplemental benefits violated Art. VI, Sec. 19 of the Constitution, which requires that the Legislature “prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record.”
Benke explained that the obligation “is not onerous, but does require that the Legislature consider the specific issue and, at a minimum, establish or reference identifiable standards.”
Lawmakers then took up the issue during a special session called by the governor for the purpose of legislating upon “the economy, including, but not limited to efforts to…create and retain jobs.”
Acting expressly to address Sturgeon and specifically noting that “numerous counties and courts established local or court supplemental benefits to retain qualified applicants for judicial office, and trial court reliance upon the existence of these longstanding supplemental benefits provided by the counties of the court,” the Legislature enacted SBX2 11, by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The bill, which was signed into law Feb 20, allows 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.
SBX2 11 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.”
Motion for Summary Judgment
Sturgeon, again represented by Judicial Watch, subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the Legislature had lacked authority to enact SBX2 11 because it addressed a subject—judicial compensation—that was not among the specified subjects for which the governor called the Legislature into session.
He also contended that the bill failed to provide “any standards of safeguards to assure that a fundamental policy choice of the Legislature is being carried out effectively” and violated equal protection because it allowed judicial benefits to vary between counties.
The county and the Los Angeles Superior Court, which had intervened in the matter, also filed motions for summary judgment and a hearing on all three motions took place before Richman on July 13.
Richman acknowledged that the subject of judicial compensation was not specifically identified as one of the subjects for which the governor had called the Legislature into extraordinary session, but explained that the Legislature presumably deemed that topic subsumed within one of the specific objectives of the governor’s proclamation.
Citing the Court of Appeal’s Sturgeon decision, Richman said “there can be little doubt the benefits that the county provides its judges enhance the recruitment and retention of judges,” and, since one of the subjects for which the Legislature was called into session to address was the retention of jobs, Richman reasoned that the enactment of SBX2 11 was valid.
He also determined that the provisions of SBX2 11 complied with Art. VI, Sec. 19, as interpreted in Sturgeon. “The passage of Senate Bill 11 shows that the Legislature obviously ‘considered’ the problem identified in Sturgeon,” Richman opined.
Additionally, in prescribing the manner in which judges could receive supplemental benefits and the nature of those benefits, Richman said the bill sufficiently addressed the “fundamental policy” of judicial compensation and effectively limited benefits to those specified.
That the Legislature did not set forth a uniform statewide amount of the total salary, compensation and benefits was not an “abdication” of duty, Richman added, positing that “[t]he fundamental policy of the state is established, but it incorporates a measure of local variation should counties opt to take up the burden of underwriting the expense of providing judges with the benefits specified.”
Noting also that the bill established safeguards requiring the Judicial Council to report to the Legislature on any “statewide benefits inconsistencies” and ensuring that the judges’ salaries would not be unconstitutionally reduced during their terms of office, Richman concluded that SBX2 11 satisfied Art. VI, Sec. 19 as a matter of law.
Richman also rejected the equal protection challenge, explaining that the bill does not establish differing levels of compensation for judges. The bill “merely states that the policy of the state will permit localities to provide supplement (sic) benefits to superior court judges, at the county’s option,” he said. “It is only in the context of what action various counties may or may not take than an equal protection claim can get any traction.”
Even assuming that the bill were responsible for disparate standards of compensation, Richman emphasized that any equal protection challenge would not survive rational basis review since the classification of judges by county neither burdened a suspect group nor a fundamental interest.
Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. and Kahn A. Scolnick of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represented the court.
Boutrous said his client was pleased with Richman’s ruling, remarking that it “protects the prerogatives of the Legislature in passing statutes concerning judicial compensation and paves the way for further evaluation on this issue statewide going forward.”
Sturgeon was represented by Sterling E. Norris and Paul J. Orfanedes of Judicial Watch Inc., who could not be reached for comment.
The county was represented by Elwood Lui and Brian D. Hershman of Jones Day, who also could not be reached.
The case is Sturgeon v. Los Angeles County, BC351286.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company