Editorial: Judges shouldn’t vote on own benefits

We firmly believe that judges should be adequately compensated for the extremely challenging work they do. We find it troubling, though, that judges in several counties — including San Luis Obispo — had a hand in boosting their own benefits.

As Tribune writer Nick Wilson recently reported, judges in San Luis Obispo County voted in 2004 to increase their benefits by 49 percent. They weren’t alone; as Wilson reported, judges in 23 other counties also awarded themselves benefits over and above what the state offers.

We aren’t going to debate whether or not judges deserve this or that stipend. We’re far more concerned about the manner in which these benefits were approved.

The increases may be completely justifiable, but allowing judges to vote on their benefits, in private meetings, guarantees criticism from a public that wants judges, above all others, to be beyond reproach.

The state Judicial Council is looking into the way benefits should be decided in the future. In the meantime, benefits have been frozen at 2008 levels.

We strongly urge authorities to get this straightened out as expeditiously as possible.

We believe the benefits should be set either by the state Legislature — which is already in charge of setting judicial salaries — or perhaps by an independent or judicial commission.

We also would urge officials to find a way to build more flexibility into the salary and benefit system, to allow for adjustments in times of fiscal crisis.

Last year, for example, many judges — including eight of San Luis Obispo County’s 12 judges — took voluntary pay cuts that collectively saved the state $4.9 million.

That’s commendable.

Oddly, though, there is no mechanism for judges to take similar action this year; it requires an act of the Legislature to allow judges to take even a voluntary pay cut, and that didn’t happen this year.

Bottom line: Confidence in the judiciary is always important, but especially so in this time of fiscal crisis, when courts have been so hard hit.

We urge the Judicial Council and the state Legislature to ensure that judges are removed from the process of setting benefits — but are allowed to pitch in and offer to forgo a portion of their salaries if they so choose.