LOS ANGELES (CN) – A state appeals court on Wednesday ordered California to compensate its judges for constitutionally mandated pay raises that were wrongly withheld for six years.
“We are pleased with the result and hope we are nearing the point where judges and pensioners will receive the long overdue amounts to which they are entitled,” said Raoul Kennedy, an attorney with Skadden Arps in Palo Alto, who represented the class of 3,400 active and retired judges and justices.
Government Code Section 68203 provides for mandatory annual judicial salary increases by taking the current salary of each judge or justice and multiplying it by the average percentage salary increase for state employees in the current fiscal year.
The state tried to argue that the phrase “‘average percentage salary increase for the current fiscal year for California state employees” in section 68203 meant not only increases, but salary decreases caused by furloughs imposed during the lean fiscal years 2008-09 and 2011-12.
“Defendants’ interpretation is inconsistent with the plain language of the statute,” Acting Presiding Justice Victoria Chavez of the Second Appellate District wrote. “The plain meaning of ‘increase’ is to grow larger in size or amount.”
She added the statute contains no provision limiting judicial salaries during years when state employee salaries are effectively decreased, though judges’ salaries are subject to the same limits on raises as other state employees.
In its unpublished ruling Wednesday, the appellate panel affirmed the trial court’s March 2016 judgment, which awarded attorney’s fees and 10 percent interest on the unpaid salaries and benefits.
Associate Justices Brian Hoffstadt and Laurie Zelon joined in Chavez’s opinion.
In the originating case, now-retired Justice Robert Mallano said judges and justices had taken pay cuts at the height of the state’s fiscal crisis but never received the raises to which they were entitled when state employees were given raises of between 0.10 and 0.97 percent since then. Likewise for retired judges, whose pensions are tied to judicial salaries.
The appellate court found state employee raises should have extended to judges.
“Defendants’ interpretation of average percentage salary increase as including effective salary decreases is inconsistent with CalHR’s contemporaneous calculations of average percentage salary increases during the fiscal years at issue,” Chavez wrote.
“CalHR contemporaneously calculated salary increases in the amounts of 0.97 percent in 2008-2009, 0.10 percent in 2009-2010, 0.11 percent in 2010-2011, and 0.22 percent in 2013-2014. These calculations did not include any effective salary decreases as the result of furloughs.”
Active judges are owed more than $23 million in back salary and interest, Chavez wrote, and retired judges are owed more than $13 million in back salary and interest.
The judges are also entitled to attorneys’ fees, but Chavez did not specify the amount. While the state said that there was no public benefit to a fee award, the appellate court saw otherwise.
“Judicial compensation is a matter of statewide concern, as it is the principal means of protecting the independence of the judicial branch,” Chavez wrote. “The instant lawsuit enforced an important right affecting the public interest.”
She added, “Judges have a vested right to their office for a certain term, and, during the time periods relevant to this action, to an annual increase in salary in accordance with the formula prescribed in section 68203. Because the statutorily mandated salary increases were not paid, judges entitled to those increases suffered impairment of a vested right.”