Monday, June 17, 2002
Local Judges’ Benefit Package Targeted in Federal Civil Rights Suit
Complaint Filed by Attorney Richard Fine Says MegaFlex Makes Judges Beholden to County
By KENNETH OFGANG
Los Angeles Superior Court judicial officers whose salaries are supplemented by the county are violating the due process rights of citizens who oppose the county in litigation and are not informed of the possible conflict of interest, one such litigant has charged in a federal district court action.
In a complaint filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, John Silva asks for an injunction to prevent the county from paying such “local judicial benefits” to judges and commissioners who hear cases involving the county and requiring that all payments of such benefits be disclosed by the judicial officers to litigants.
Silva is represented by Beverly Hills attorney Richard I. Fine, who has represented him in a Superior Court suit against the county. Silva’s allegations that the District Attorney’s Office was violating state law by holding onto child support collections for more than six months without either distributing them to payees or returning them to payors were rejected by the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal.
Fine asked for certification of a defendant class made up of all county judicial officers. Named as individual defendants were Judge James Chalfant, who heard the Silva case, Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Roger Boren and Justices Kathryn Doi Todd and Michael G. Nott, who made up the appellate panel in that case, and Commissioner Bruce Mitchell, who heard another case in which Fine was plaintiffs’ counsel and who is alleged to have violated due process by failing to disclose his receipt of benefits.
Fine was also awaiting word late Friday on his request for a stay of Mitchell’s order sentencing him to five days in jail for filing false allegations of judicial bias in that case. The attorney asked U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips to delay his incarceration, scheduled to begin today, pending consideration of a habeas corpus petition that he filed after exhausting his state appeals of the sentence.
The latest suit attacks what has long been a sore point with judges in other counties—the “MegaFlex” benefits, payable in cash or in the form of insurance products—which increase the compensation of Los Angeles Superior Court judges by about $30,000 per year.
The benefits are also paid to Los Angeles Superior Court commissioners, and are similar to those paid to county department heads.
The Trial Court Funding Act, under which the state assumed most of the costs of operating trial courts during the 1990s, permits counties to continue paying “local judicial benefits.” But the complaint says the payments are voluntary on the part of the county and not compelled by law, and accuses the judges and commissioners of having misstated the legal authority for the payments.
Frederick Bennett, the Superior Court’s counsel, said the allegations are nothing new, having been raised “many times” by Fine in various suits against the county and rejected by every judge who has seen them.
“This type of judge-shopping is still not likely to succeed,” Bennett told the MetNews.
The Trial Court Funding Act, Bennett explained, recognizes that “local trial courts and counties have been closely connected for a long time.” Thus, even though courts are separate and funded by the state, they are allowed to continue paying benefits, like MegaFlex, which were in place in the pre-1996 era when courts were funded mostly by the counties.
While the Los Angeles County benefits are generous, they are not unique in the state, he added, although Silva’s pleading notes that Chief Justice Ronald M. George, in a question-and-answer session at the California Judges Association’s 2000 annual meeting in San Diego, criticized the disparity created by such local benefits
George suggested on that occasion that the payments may be invalid, since the state Constitution requires that the Legislature establish the “compensation,” not merely the salaries, of judges. But Bennett said he did not believe the chief justice’s informally stated view could withstand rigorous analysis.
“It was not the intent of the Trial Court Funding Act to reduce any benefit” that judges or other court employees were receiving, Bennett said.
Once the county declared that it was paying local judicial benefits, the court counsel explained, the cost of those benefits was excluded from the maintenance-of-effort requirement—the amount that the county must continue to contribute to court operations, based on the amount of county funding in the 1994-95 base year.
But by submitting such a declaration, Bennett said, the county assumed a legal obligation to continue paying the benefits, contrary to Fine’s continued assertions that the payments are voluntary and can be stopped at any time.
“It’s constitutional, it’s lawful, and all of the courts that have looked it have found it not to be disqualifying,” Bennett commented. He also disputed Fine’s claim that bench officers are violating the Political Reform Act by not declaring the payments on their Statement of Economic Interests form.
Fair Political Practices Commission rules “clearly say that salary and benefits from a public entity are not required to be disclosed,” Bennett said.
But Fine said he did not know that the judges were receiving these payments while he was suing the county and forcing it to “return[ ] $300 million to the taxpayers” in various suits, and that simple fairness required the judges to disclose that his adversary had discretion over their overall compensation.
“The judges were receiving these moneys and they should have said that they were receiving the moneys, in any case that I was involved in,” he commented.
The case is Silva v. County of Los Angeles, 02-04645-TJH.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company