Be Nice To Your Judge

     So you think you’re suffering?
     Cheer up. It could be worse. You could be a judge in Los Angeles County.
     In case you missed it (and you probably did because this got amazingly little press coverage), Superior Court judges in Los Angeles have just seen their pay cut by about 21%.
     Imagine being a judge in Los Angeles who has put all his/her extra money in the stock market.
     Yikes!
     What did the judges do to deserve this?
     Well, nothing. A state court of appeals panel – in a district outside of Los Angeles – has ruled that Los Angeles County was improperly paying about $46,436 a year in benefits to its judges because California counties aren’t supposed to be paying judges at all. (Actually, the ruling just reversed a summary judgment that had thrown the suit out, but it does say the County had no legal authority to provide the payments.)
     Let that sink in for a moment.
     I’m guessing most of you reading this are a lot like me in that we had no idea who pays state judges’ salaries. And you, like me, probably thought that whoever did pay those salaries would probably also be paying any benefits that went with the job.
     Not so.
     It turns out, according to the ruling from the 4th Appellate District, that the state government pays Superior Court judges $172,000 and the County of Los Angeles kicks in those benefits separately even though it doesn’t have to.
     Now here’s the really intriguing sentence: “Although the record is not entirely clear, it appears that at some point in the late 1980’s the county began providing its superior and municipal court judges with employment benefits in addition to the salary prescribed by the Legislature.”
     It’s not entirely clear what happened?!?
     The county just up and decided to pay a whole lot more to people who were already getting a full salary from the state? Did the county run out of things to do with its money? Do you think the county kicked in for all the other state employees working within its borders?
     And no one noticed this for two decades?
     Yes, the county lawyers – we’re assuming with a straight face – had an explanation. According to the ruling, they claimed that “in light of the high cost of living in the Los Angeles area and the high salaries paid to lawyers in the region, the benefits were needed to attract and retain skilled and experienced judges.”
     Well OK, that could be. Cynical me, though – I thought it was more likely that some judges were buddies with somebody on the county Board of Supervisors.
     But, since the record isn’t clear, we can only speculate. (Really. Go ahead and speculate – it’s a lot of fun.)
     The practical question we have now is what happens next. Will judges resign en masse from the Los Angeles bench? Should we be taking up collections for them? Will we have to recruit new judges right out of law school because no one else will take the job?
     Should the county give judges some other part time job to make up for the pay cut? We could always use some extra cops on the street and with those robes, they ‘d have a Batman kind of vibe.
     I don’t have the answers to the questions, but I do know one thing: you’d better be really nice to your Los Angeles judges for the next few weeks because they’re going to be grumpy.
     Invite a judge to dinner. It’s the least you can do.

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