Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, March 10, 2016


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S.C. Turns Down Challenge to Local Judicial Benefits


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday let stand a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling that allows counties to continue paying benefits to local trial judges.

The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted 5-1 to deny review in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 1437. Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar voted to hear the case, while Justice Leondra Kruger, who gave birth March 1, did not participate.

The high court said last week Kruger is expected back to work in time to hear arguments in Los Angeles April 6.

The case turned down by the justices was brought by Harold Sturgeon, represented by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. It was a taxpayer action in which the plaintiff claimed that the “fix” enacted by the Legislature in response to a prior decision that such benefits were unconstitutional had been improperly applied in favor of judges who took office after the new law was enacted.

The ruling by Div. Three was the third appellate decision in nearly a decade of litigation between Sturgeon and Los Angeles County over its payments to members of the local bench.

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, along with a “professional development allowance” and a 401(k) match of up to four percent of the judge’s salary.

Those payments now total over $57,000 annually, significantly boosting each judge’s state salary of $189,041, while judges in other counties get less. Justice William Bedsworth noted in his opinion that those in three small counties “receive no supplemental benefits at all,” but said those disparities can only be remedied by the Legislature.

Sturgeon I

In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630, the court held the county benefits to be “compensation,” and therefor unconstitutional because only the Legislature may prescribe compensation for judges.   

Lawmakers then passed SBX2 11, creating Government Code §68220, finding 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 that legislation, counties or courts that were supplementing judges’ salaries as of July 1, 2008 were required to continue to do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. Judges in office at the time of the termination notice, however, would be entitled to benefits until the end of their terms, or, at county option, until they leave the bench.

Sturgeon II

In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2010) 191 Cal.App.4th 344, the Fourth District’s Div. One upheld the new law, rejecting the plaintiff’s claims that the existence of a county option, and the continuing disparity in benefits, both rendered the law unconstitutional.

Justice Patricia Benke described the new law as an “interim measure,” saying that failure to pass a more “comprehensive response” would likely lead to more litigation, and predicting that “the Legislature within a reasonable period of time will act to adopt a uniform statewide system of judicial compensation.”

The prediction of more permanent legislative action did not come to pass, and the prediction of new litigation did. The court, Bedsworth wrote, therefore “must respond to Cassandra,” whose “punishment for refusing to have sex with Apollo was a ‘gift’ of accurate prophecy accompanied by the curse of having no one listen to her.”

Bedsworth said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the passage of time had not rendered the new law unconstitutional.

“[T]he Legislature built better than it knew,” the justice said, concluding that while further legislation may be desirable, it is not constitutionally necessary, because the law does not delegate compensation decisions to counties.

“Properly construed, section 68220 requires those counties paying supplemental benefits as of July 1, 2008, to continue paying them on the same terms and conditions as were in effect on July 1, 2008, and to pay them to all judges of the county’s superior court, not just those judges who held office as of July 1, 2008,” Bedsworth explained.

Other Action

In other conference action, the justices:

•Let stand a First District ruling that the State Lands Commission violated the public trust doctrine when it approved the dredge mining of sand from sovereign lands under San Francisco Bay.

Div. Four held in San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. v. State Lands Commission (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 202 that review under the California Environmental Quality Act did not obviate the need for separate consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims that the plan was an inappropriate use of public trust land.

•Declined to review a Fourth District ruling that upheld a lease-back financing plan adopted by the City of San Diego to fund public infrastructure improvements. Div. One held that because the bonds would be issued by a joint powers authority created by the city and by its since-dissolved community redevelopment agency, and not by the city itself, the debt ceiling imposed by the state Constitution and the city’s charter did not apply.


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