Judicial Watch Challenges Double Dipping by California Judges
“Supplemental” benefits still continue six years after passage of stop-gap legislation court termed an “interim measure, awaiting further legislative action”
Benefits costs Los Angeles County taxpayers $24,661,923 in 2013
(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that it filed its “Opening Brief on Appeal” in a legal challenge to Los Angeles County’s continued payment of “supplemental judicial benefits” to state trial court judges serving in the county. The brief was filed on behalf of Los Angeles County taxpayer Harold P. Sturgeon in the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District.
The brief details the cost of the benefits to taxpayers:
In 2013, the County paid approximately $57,487 in “supplemental judicial benefits” to each of the approximately 429 judges of the Superior Court. This included approximately $33,970 in “cafeteria plan” benefits, approximately $15,600 in retirement benefits, and a $7,917 “professional development allowance” … In 2013 alone, the cost of these benefits to the County’s taxpayers was at least approximately $24,661,923.
In 1997, the California Legislature enacted a state law providing that “[o]n and after July 1, 1997, the state shall assume sole responsibility for the funding of court operations,” including salaries and benefits packages. Since 1998, however, Los Angeles County has continued to provide additional, taxpayer-funded “supplemental judicial benefits” to judges in the county, despite Article VI, Section 19 of the California Constitution, which mandates that only the legislature can set the level of compensation received by the judges.
Judicial Watch began the fight against the county’s payment of “supplemental judicial benefits” in the spring of 2006, when it filed its first “citizen-taxpayer” lawsuit – also on behalf of Mr. Sturgeon – seeking to have the benefits declared unlawful. Following a trial court ruling that upheld the benefits, Judicial Watch appealed. In a 2008 decision, the Court of Appeal agreed with Judicial Watch and reversed the ruling, declaring the benefits unconstitutional because they had not been “prescribed” by the Legislature.
But in 2009, Los Angeles County and the judges hired lobbyists, reportedly at a cost of $10,000 per month, to successfully push the California Legislature to enact a statute temporarily authorizing continued payment of the benefits for the balance of sitting judges’ terms in office. The Court of Appeal upheld the temporary measure in 2010, declaring it only an “interim measure, awaiting further legislative action.” To date, the legislature has failed to take further action.
On April 1, 2014, Judicial Watch filed a second lawsuit seeking to end the county-provided benefits, citing the absence of any further legislative action. The trial court again sided with the county, and Judicial Watch appealed.
Meanwhile, the problem remains widespread in California. Many state trial court judges continue to collect “supplemental judicial benefits,” either from the counties in which they serve or from the courts themselves. According to a 2009 report from NBC Los Angeles:
Eighteen of California’s 58 counties give more than 800 superior court judges about $25 million a year in extra benefits on top of their $179,000 state salaries, even as they lay off employees and reduce services amid the recession. The state picks up the tab for extras in 19 counties.
“It is a mark of the corruption endemic in California that a taxpayer has to sue to stop judges from double dipping. Public confidence in the integrity of the courts is of the utmost importance, and an integral part of that integrity is how judges are paid,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “For Los Angeles County to continue to pay judges $24.6 million a year – over and above the salaries and benefits they already receive from the state and without proper authorization from the Legislature – violates California’s constitution and is an abuse of the taxpayers’ trust.”
For more on this issue, view a recent Full Disclosure Network interview with Judicial Watch Director of Litigation Paul J. Orfanedes.