Counties give hefty extra pay to judges

Among the legislation that passed last month as part of the California budget was a Senate bill that allows counties to continue the decade-old practice of paying additional compensation to judges beyond their state salaries.

Activist lawyers who have been fighting the practice for years are crying foul, claiming that what should have been a controversial bill became law with little public notice. They note that the bill circumvents a court case that would have stopped the payments.  

The special-session bill, SB11, was sponsored by the Judicial Council of California and authored by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. It authorizes counties to elect to pay extra compensation to judges. It also stipulates that no judge who received these payments would have to pay them back or be subject to any other liability.

Judges in 32 counties receive some form of benefits, paid either by the county, the court or some combination of the two. These come in a variety of forms, including cash, health and life insurance benefits, retirement contributions, education allowances, cafeteria and car allowances, even gym memberships.

But Los Angeles County has become the epicenter for those fighting the benefits, both because it employs a third of the judges in the state and because it pays by far the highest benefits. Judges there make $46,436 in additional compensation on top of their state salaries. These “local judicial benefits” include insurance and retirement benefits, as well as cash. Adding this sum to their $178,789 in state salary means they make more than the $217,000 paid annually to U.S. Supreme Court justices.

According to Alan Parachini, a spokesman for the L.A. Superior Court, these additional payments are needed for retaining experienced judges in the area.  

“I think there would have been many judges who would have rethought their commitment to being on the bench,” Parachini said. “After all, these benefits have been part of the compensation package for decades.” He added, “They made family financial decisions based on that. They gave up very lucrative law careers to go on the bench.”

Such comments don’t sit well with Sterling Norris, senior California attorney with Judicial Watch. This is the group that brought the 2006 case, Sturgeon vs. Los Angeles County, that would have ended the payments.

“If we need [extra] money to have good judges, that’s kind of a sad commentary on the integrity of the judiciary,” Norris said.

Norris was a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles from 1967 to 2000. He ran for district attorney unsuccessfully as a conservative Republican in 1992 and 1996. Norris was also active in the Crime Victims Justice Reform Act initiative campaign in 1990 and the campaign to unseat California Supreme Court chief justice Rose Bird in 1986 over her opposition to the death penalty.

In October, a California appeals court in San Diego ruled that the payments were unconstitutional—though Norris and the bill’s supporters disagree on the exact meaning of the ruling. On Dec. 23, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Norris said that he was in the process of petitioning for a preliminary injunction to stop the payments when the legislation appeared.

In November, the L.A. Superior Court hired contract lobbyist Burt Margolin, who served in the Assembly as a Democrat from Los Angeles from 1983 to 1994. Parachini said he had a six-month contract at $10,000 a month running through April, though it was unclear whether Margolin would remain on retainer now that the bill was law. Margolin did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

According to Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Steinberg, the Judicial Counsel approached them about the possibility of doing a bill in December.

“They first approached us wanting to set up a new system for judicial benefits for the entire state,” Trost said. “We pointed to our deficit and said ‘Now is not the time for that.’ ”

Such an overall reform would be an eight to 10 year process, said Curt Child, director of governmental affairs at the Judicial Counsel, in order to bring more “equity” into the benefits. Child also said that the Los Angeles Superior Court, the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the California Judges Association have been jointly seeking this as part of overall reform of benefits for some time. The Steinberg bill does call for the Judicial Counsel to produce a report reviewing benefits in different counties.

“There should be some geographical determination based on cost of living,” Child. “But initially, we want to get some equity, particularly in the counties where the benefits are not being provided.”

The bill that did pass existed for only nine days before becoming law. It was introduced on Feb. 11 and went through a single committee, Budget and Fiscal Review, which currently consists of the entire Senate. It passed on 22-13 party line vote, then passed by wide margins in both houses among the dozens of budget trailer bills. Trost said that bill was appropriate to pass as part of the budget package.

“We had an obligation to make sure government kept operating, and we have to keep the judicial system functioning,” she said.
Norris had a different take, saying most legislators didn’t even know what they were voting for.

“This ought to go down in history as the midnight express,” he said.

Child said that numerous Los Angeles judges probably would have left had the bill not passed.

“It would have had caused significant disruption on the bench if we had decided the benefits were coming and going,” Child said. “That’s why we needed to act promptly.”

The payments are an outgrowth of the Lockyer-Isenberg 1997 Trial Court Funding Act.

Under that law, all judges in the state became employees of the state and received standardized pay, regardless of where they lived. Many counties, especially in areas with higher costs of living, instituted extra payments in order to recruit and retain talented, experienced judges.

By 2000, several attorneys had begun publicly attacking the practice, particularly in Los Angeles County, which traditional had the highest payments. Back then, they made nearly $30,000 on top of the Superior Court salary of $118,000.

Norris said that since the Lockyer-Isenberg Act, Los Angeles has paid out over $20 million a year, or $200 million total, in these payments. Without the immunity clause in the bill, he said, judges could potentially be sued and ordered to repay county taxpayers up to $350,000 in “local judicial benefits” they had received.

On this, Trost and Parachini agree. But Parachini said that such an outcome would only accelerate the loss of experienced judges, who would be forced to go into private law firms to repay the debt. Any judge with at least 20 years experience, he said, could opt for full retirement at any time, even if they were in the middle of an elected, six-year term.

There is also a lucrative market for “private judges.” Typically, these are retired judges who hear cases in outside the public court system where the parties, usually corporations, agree to accept the outcome.

Parachini also noted that judges are not the only classes of employees the court is seeking to keep in the midst of the down economy.

They also are seeking to maintain pay and benefits to Information Technology staff and judicial assistants, who take nine months to a year to train. For other e
mployment categories—clerks, administrative and transport staff, for instance—the Court is in a “soft hiring freeze.”

Norris said he wasn’t sure what his next move would be, beyond trying to publicize the issue. He contested the idea that it was a statewide problem, saying that payments are much lower in other counties, and that many counties are phasing them out. Meanwhile, he noted that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed seven new Los Angeles judges in January, indicating plenty of interest in these jobs. Superior Court judges are appointed by one six year term, than can be elected to additional terms by local voters.

He also took issue with the “immunity clause” in the bill. While Parachini characterized the bill as a “technical fix,” Norris said many judges were aware that the payments were unconstitutional and constituted a crime.

 “I don’t think it can legally be done,” Norris said. “You can’t immunize somebody after the fact. It has to be immunity from the time the crime went down.”

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