California Court of Appeal Rules that Extra Compensation for Los Angeles County Judges Violates California Constitution
OCTOBER 15, 2008
Judicial Watch, the public interest group that fights government corruption and judicial abuse, announced today that a California Court of Appeal ruled on October 10 that a scheme by Los Angeles County to pay superior court judges in the county approximately $21 million annually in perks and supplemental benefits on top of what they already receive from the state violates the California State Constitution (Harold P. Sturgeon v. The County of Los Angeles (Fourth App. Dist. Div. One, Case No. D050832)). The appellate court decision was rendered in a Judicial Watch taxpayer lawsuit challenging the legality of the extra compensation. With its decision the appellate court reversed a lower court ruling in favor of Los Angeles County.
“Section 19, article VI of the California Constitution requires that the Legislature ‘prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record,'” Associate Justice Patricia Benke wrote in her 37-page opinion. “The duty to prescribe judicial compensation is not delegable. Thus the practice of the County of Los Angeles (the county) providing Los Angeles County superior court judges with employment benefits, in addition to the compensation prescribed by the Legislature, is not permissible. Accordingly, we must reverse an order granting summary judgment in favor of the county in an action brought by a taxpayer who challenged the validity of the benefits the county provides to its superior court judges.”
In 1997, the California State Legislature enacted a 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 at least $120 million in taxpayer funded perks and supplemental benefits to judges in the county despite the California Constitution’s clear mandate that only the legislature can set the level of compensation received by judges.
For example, in 2007 Los Angeles County provided the judges with cash allowances equal to 19% of the salary they received from the state. Judges were allowed to either purchase additional health, life, disability and other benefits from the county’s MegaFlex benefits plan on a pre-tax basis or keep the cash as taxable income. Overall, each superior court judge was eligible to receive $46,436 in supplemental compensation from Los Angeles County, an additional 27% of the salary received from the state, for a total cost of $21 million s in fiscal year 2007 alone. Judicial Watch’s Sturgeon litigation was handled by Judicial Watch Litigation Director Paul J. Orfanedes and Judicial Watch’s senior California attorney Sterling “Ernie” Norris.
“This appellate court ruling represents a tremendous victory the taxpayers and citizens of California,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “This extra pay for LA County judges was an affront to the rule of law and now, thanks to our lawsuit, taxpayers in LA could save up to $21 million a year.”
For more information on this case, click here.