Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Page 1


Court of Appeal Upholds Legislative Fix to Local Judicial Benefits




A measure enacted at a special session of the Legislature to continue county payments of benefits to local trial judges, over and their state salaries, was upheld by the Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday.

Div. One, in an opinion by Justice Patricia Benke, said SBX2 11 adequately addressed the deficiencies which caused the court to declare the benefits unconstitutional in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630.

Harold P. Sturgeon, whose taxpayer suit resulted in the 2008 ruling, sued again after lawmakers enacted SBX2 11 at a special session called to, among other things, “consider and act upon legislation to address the economy, including but not limited to efforts to stimulate California’s economy, create and retain jobs, and streamline the operations of state and local governments.”

Legislators’ Findings

In enacting the bill, lawmakers found 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 were supplementing judges’ salaries were required to continue to do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. The bill also immunized all public entities and officers against any liability resulting from past payment of local judicial benefits.

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.

Those amounts have now reached $57,000, over and above a state salary that may be the highest in the nation for trial judges, Sturgeon’s attorney told the MetNews.

“We think it is unconscionable they take that money from Los Angeles County,” Sterling E. Norris Jr. of Judicial Watch said, vowing to take the case to the state Supreme Court.

“Everybody was supposed to be a state judge and everybody cut back except Los Angeles County,” he said. “It’s a lot of gravy.”

 Norris argued that the purported fix was unconstitutional because it exceeded the scope of the special session, violated the right of judges in the other counties to equal protection, and delegated the Legislature’s duty to prescribe compensation to the counties.

First District Court of Appeal Justice James Richman, sitting by assignment as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, rejected those arguments, as did the appellate court.

Benke noted that courts have broadly interpreted the requirement that a law enacted in special session be related to a subject specified in the governor’s proclamation. She cited a World War II-era decision upholding a law reorganizing the State Guard to call members of the State Guard into active service to aid the war effort.

The law was enacted in response to then-Gov. Culbert Olson’s call to “consider and act upon legislation augmenting the appropriation for the operation, maintenance and organization of the State Guard.” Members of the guard sued, claiming that the major reorganization and authorization for active-duty call-ups went well beyond the scope of the governor’s proclamation.

Scope of Session

The court, however, in Martin v. Riley (1942) 20 Cal.2d 28, said that once the governor designates a subject for the special session, lawmakers may consider “matters relating to, germane to and having a natural connection with the subject proper,” and that the Legislature will not be bound by “[a]ny matter of restriction or limitation” as to what it may enact.

The justices cited an 1886 Texas case, dealing with a special session called to reduce certain taxes, at which the Legislature raised other taxes. The Texas appellate court conclude that once the governor introduced the subject of tax reductions in the session, the Legislature had “practically absolute” power to increase other taxes to make up for the lost revenue.

Benke explained:

“[U]nder Martin v. Riley the Governor’s call opened up the subject of the operations of state and local governments....Whether the legislation in fact streamlined those operations is not of concern to us: the Governor’s proclamation gave the Legislature the power to legislate in the area of state and local government operations. ...Our opinion in Sturgeon I plainly disturbed the existing relationship between the county and the judges sitting in the county’s superior courts and by it terms required legislative action if the disputed benefits were to continue. In responding to our opinion, the Legislature plainly dealt with the operations of both state and local government by requiring that local governments continue to provide judges with the benefits pending the report of the Judicial Council with respect to statewide inequity in the payment of those benefits.”

This “interim solution,” the justice went on to say, satisfied the Legislature’s nondelegable duty to prescribe judicial compensation, since it reflected a state policy and contained adequate safeguards to prevent counties from adopting means that were contrary to legislative intent.

She cited the mandate that counties continue to pay the benefits they were paying before Sturgeon I, the requirement that the Judicial Council report to the Legislature on how to make the benefits more equitable around the state, the Legislature’s recognition of the use of local benefits as a means of attracting judicial talent, and the requirement that counties give 180 days’ notice before terminating benefits, thus giving lawmakers time to address the issue before termination takes effect.

As for the equal protection argument, Benke—in addition to questioning whether standing exists to raise the issue in a taxpayer suit—said the law passes the rational basis test. She said there was “no difficulty finding such a basis in the Legislature’s express recognition that payment of the benefits by various counties and courts is needed to retain qualified judicial officers.”

Elwood Lui of Jones Day, who represented the county on appeal, did not return a MetNews phone call. Theodore Boutrous Jr. of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who represented the Los Angeles Superior Court as intervenor, referred a request for comment to the court, which noted in a statement that while the decision immediately effects Los Angeles County, it “will also benefit the judges of the other 38 courts statewide that receive locally provided benefits.”

The case is Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, 10 S.O.S. 7158.


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