Thursday, March 17, 2011
S.C. Won’t Hear Challenge to Ruling on Judicial Benefits
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday declined to review a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling upholding the right of counties to pay benefits to local trial judges.
The high court, at its weekly conference in San Francisco, voted 6-0 to deny review in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, 191 Cal.App.4th 344. The court has one vacancy due to the recent retirement of Justice Carlos Moreno.
The court’s order leaves intact 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.
The Fourth District’s 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.”
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.
SBX2 11, Benke said, is an “interim solution” that satisfies the Legislature’s nondelegable duty to prescribe judicial compensation, since it reflects a state policy and contains adequate safeguards to prevent counties from adopting means 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.
The justice rejected the argument that allowing different counties to compensate judges differently violates equal protection rights of judges in the counties that do not pay extra benefits.
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.”
In other conference action, the justices:
•Declined to review last year’s censure by the Commission on Judicial Performance of Placer Superior Court Judge Joseph O’Flaherty for willful misconduct, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and improper action.
The CJP found that the judge abused his authority by calling a small claims plaintiff back into court after his case was dismissed and ordering him to stay away from the defense witnesses, even though there were no allegations of harassment made during the hearing.
O’Flaherty was also was publicly admonished in 2004 for telling potential jurors it was acceptable for them to lie in order to avoid serving on juries that would try minority defendants.
•Left standing a ruling by this district’s Div. Six in People v. Shrier, B218424, in which the court held that it was “judicial overkill” to dismiss charges that five defendants stole more than $1 million in Medi-Cal funds because state agents eavesdropped on attorney-client conversations.
Suppression of evidence obtained through the eavesdropping is the appropriate sanction, balancing the defendant’s rights and the government’s interest in prosecution, Justice Kenneth R. Yegan wrote for Div. Six. The defendants are Peter Shrier, Anna and Gersha Gravich, and Arkady and Ella Rozenberg.
•Denied review of a Third District Court of Appeal ruling that a penalty imposed on corporations that understate state income tax liability by more than $1 million per year is not itself a tax, and thus not subject to the constitutional ban on raising taxes without two-thirds approval of both houses of the Legislature.
The lower panel upheld Revenue and Taxation Code Sec. 19138, rejecting the California Taxpayers’ Association’s claims that it violates Art. 13A, Sec. 3 of the state Constitution, as well as due process guarantees.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company