Legislation for judiciary benefits under fire

In 2004, San Luis Obispo County judges gave themselves benefit raises totaling about $6,900 per year for each judge, a 49 percent boost.

Judges at 23 other county courts statewide awarded themselves similar benefit hikes in recent years, ultimately affecting more than 600 judges. The judges felt legislation at the time allowed them to do so.

Now, the state’s independent agency charged with investigating complaints and disciplining judges has formally asked California’s attorney general to give a legal opinion on the constitutionality of 2009 legislation that retroactively authorized the judge-approved increases.

The state’s Commission on Judicial Performance submitted its letter in May to Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office. A response to the letter from Harris’ office is pending.

The commission doesn’t believe 2009 legislation immunizing judges from discipline for the benefit increases is consistent with the state’s constitution.

The commission also is questioning whether the legislation can mandate retroactive authorization for benefits that judges awarded themselves between 1997 and 2008.

“The commission concludes that the Legislature does not have this authority, and that (the legislation) is invalid and unconstitutional,” wrote Victoria Henley, the commission’s director and chief counsel, in the letter.

Local judicial compensation

San Luis Obispo County judges now receive supplemental benefits of about $21,000 per year. Of that compensation, about $14,000 was authorized when the county handled the court’s budget before 1997.

The supplemental benefits package amounts to $235,000 per year split among 12 local judges.

That funding includes a cafeteria-style health plan, life insurance, a car allowance and an education allowance. The compensation is on top of an annual salary of $178,789, which is standard for state judges.

The county’s presiding judge, Charles Crandall, defends the supplemental benefits as necessary to attract qualified, skilled applicants.

“You want the best and the brightest to be a judge and not just attract from one sector of the legal profession, but from all over the place,” Crandall said.

Lawyers can make more in private practice than judges, and judicial compensation needs to remain appealing, he said.

How judges’ benefits funding developed

Until 1998, the court’s budget was overseen by the county Board of Supervisors.

But the Trial Court Funding Act moved the responsibility to the state, meaning county judges decided how to handle their own court’s budget.

In San Luis Obispo County, however, some local revenues were still managed by the county auditor-controller for the courts. As recently as January 2000 the Board of Supervisors approved local judicial benefit funding, said Susan Matherly, the court’s executive officer.

But at a meeting on Oct. 1, 2004, the local judges voted to increase benefits in three areas, Matherly said. The regular meeting was attended by court staff members and judges.

No court staff, who weigh in on budget decisions, objected to the increases, which were made at a time when revenues were more plentiful, Crandall said.

They increased cafeteria health benefits by $75 monthly per judge to match county executive compensation; increased a monthly car allowance by $150 per judge to match other courts’ car allowances; and started a monthly education allowance of $350 per judge based on Los Angeles County’s package in the same amount.

Courts statewide differ in how much judges receive in supplemental benefits, ranging from $54,000 annually per judge in Los Angeles County to nothing in Santa Cruz County.

Sonoma County ($21,500 per judge) and Orange County ($22,000 per judge) have annual supplemental benefits of about the same amount as the judiciary in San Luis Obispo County.

Crandall said that while some in the public may question why education and car allowances are necessary, he said judges travel for conferences hosted by attorney groups and public organizations, including schools.

Some judges travel to other cities within the county to work. As presiding judge, Crandall said, he makes visits to other courthouses.

Status quo until further resolution

County judges statewide have been unable to change their benefit packages since July 1, 2008, at the risk of losing them entirely.

The 2009 legislation came as the result of a lawsuit filed by taxpayer Harold Sturgeon against Los Angeles County on the constitutionality of the judicial benefits. Sturgeon won in trial court before the ruling was reversed on appeal.

While 90 percent of Superior Court judges statewide receive supplemental benefits, the disparity between counties is a problem, and a committee of state judges and court staff members is working toward resolving the inequity, according to the Judicial Council of California.

Crandall said he believes all judges should be on the same par. But he also said that will be difficult to achieve given the state budget situation.

“The state can’t afford right now to bring other judges to the level of benefits in L.A. County,” Crandall said. “But ideally, I’d like that to happen.”