California judges are owed $40 million in back wages — and the bill is climbing

Gov. Gavin Newsom on state worker contracts

Gov. Gavin Newsom talks about state worker contracts during his budget proposal on Jan. 10, 2019.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom talks about state worker contracts during his budget proposal on Jan. 10, 2019.

Five months after the California Supreme Court ordered Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to pay about $40 million it owed judges, the state still hasn’t paid the money — and the bill for back wages is swelling.

The first judge to rule against the state in 2016 set an interest rate of 10 percent per year on back wages he ruled the state owes judges. The state’s bill grew by about $4 million per year as the Brown administration repeatedly appealed the ruling.

Delays could drive the cost up a little more Monday morning. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle is holding a 9 a.m. hearing with the Attorney General’s Office on whether to appoint a monitor or auditor to supervise the state controller’s payment of the money.

In 2014, retired appeals court Justice Robert Mallano filed the lawsuit, alleging the state failed to give mandatory raises to judges between 2008 and 2013.

By law, judges receive raises based on average wage increases that go to other state employees. If the average wage increase for all state workers is 3 percent, judges also would get a 3 percent raise.

From 2008 to 2013, most state workers’ wages decreased because of furloughs. Some did not have furloughs and received raises during the recession. Mallano argued in his lawsuit that judges should have received raises in line with those wage increases.

Berle ruled in his favor, as did California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal on two occasions. At the time, active judges would receive between $14,600 and $18,700, the appeals court wrote.

When the case arrived at the state Supreme Court on appeal last year, all six of the court’s justices recused themselves. The court appointed seven judges in their place who all took office after 2017. The court ruled in favor of the judges in October and the state Finance Department said it would “move forward and implement the judgment.”

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.