Labor and Judges Blast Raises for Central Bureaucracy of Courts
(CN) - California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's approval of pay hikes for the central bureaucracy of the courts has drawn harsh criticism from trial judges and labor representatives who question the 3.5 percent raise for administrators when the trial courts have laid off staff, closed courtrooms and shuttered small courthouses.
A document released by the Service Employees International Union late last week shows the chief justice has authorized a 3.5 percent pay increase for 402 employees in the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal and the judicial library.
"At a time when courts are shuttering their doors, reducing hours, discontinuing services, laying employees off, and cutting the pay of rank and file court employees providing direct services to consumers, it is mind boggling that some top management employees were granted discretionary pay raises," said Liberty Sanchez with the Laborers' International Union of North America said.
"How can the AOC continue to say with a straight face that they are making budgetary determinations in furtherance of the interest of justice," Sanchez continued, "while handing out nearly a million and a half dollars in additional pay to highly compensated employees, while simultaneously cutting direct services to the public?"
In an email statement, Cantil-Sakauye defended her action.
"We will be able to reduce furloughs to six days this fiscal year, so the employees will receive a 2.31 percent pay cut. Only those employees who have been eligible for 3.5 percent step increases -- that is, those who have not hit the top of the salary range they were hired at -- were able to partially offset the pay cuts," said the chief justice.
"Step increases occur in all three branches of government and at all levels throughout the state," she added. "I see no reason why employees who work for the Chief Justice, the appellate justices, or the Judicial Council should be treated any differently."
The yearly pay bumps were suspended in 2007 and reinstated in 2010 by former Chief Justice Ron George, after he set up an accountability committee that voted for restarting them.
Cantil-Sakauye chaired that committee. It was the first she chaired after being appointed chief justice by outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although the chair has discretion to open a committee hearing, the incoming chief justice refused a request by Courthouse News to open the meeting to the press.
"I've struggled over whether this is a pay raise," Cantil-Sakauye said in her presentation to the Judicial Council at the time, noting that accountability committee members discussed it for two and a half hours.
In the years since that 2010 reinstatement of the yearly raises, they have continued to be a subject of criticism from trial judges and union reps, while the bureaucrats defend them as normal government operation.
"Step increases -- also known as merit salary increases -- are the general practice in all levels of government," said Curt Soderlund, head of the court administrative office, in a statement. "They're not raises -- such as the ones the governor just approved for many state workers."
"I've been tracking this kind of information through my 38 years of public service and step increases are suspended in only rare instances and it's never happened in the executive branch to my knowledge," he said. "Both represented and non-represented employees receive step increases."
Sanchez with the laborers international shot down the distinction.
"Raises, step increases -- that's a question of semantics," said Sanchez. "You know what's not a question of semantics: a million and a half dollars, that could and should otherwise have been expended on keeping court doors open, and employees who provide direct services to consumers employed."
A trial court judge in Sacramento, Maryanne Gilliard, made a similar point.
"These are discretionary pay raises which required the Chief Justice to personally approve them," she said. "Playing word games may be a way to spin what is an indefensible decision. We happen to believe that the Governor and members of the Legislature won't be fooled by those semantics."
"The bottom line is this: local courthouses have closed, thousands of valued court employees have lost their jobs, and hours of service to the public have been curtailed," she concluded. "And then we learn that public monies, which could have gone to the local courts, instead were used to hand out raises over the 4th of July holiday. What is wrong with this picture? Everything. An audit must be conducted of the AOC and Judicial Council budgets."