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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Upholds Judicial Payment Plan in L.A.

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles County's practice of paying fringe or "supplemental" benefits to the county superior court judges does not violate the California Constitution, a state appeals court ruled on Monday.

The decision written by Justice William Bedworth cites the Greek mythological prophet Cassandra in pithily suggesting the state legislature did not heed warnings in earlier court rulings that it would be plagued with lawsuits if it did not enact a permanent and uniform judicial compensation system.

Ultimately, however, the need for such a uniform system is unnecessary, Bedsworth wrote, since the revisions the lawmakers made to the system in 2010 were "plain and unambiguous" in their wording and within the bounds of the state constitution.

The legal battle began when, in 2006, plaintiff Harold Sturgeon sued Los Angeles County, alleging health insurance and other supplemental benefits paid to judges violated the state constitution, which designated those powers to California.

Two years later the state appellate court agreed with Sturgeon, holding that judicial compensation could not be delegated to a county, and that compensation had to be prescribed by the state. After the ruling, lawmakers reconvened and revised the state code to allow trial judges in office as of July 1, 2008, to continue to receive the same county benefits.

Sturgeon challenged the revised state code in 2010, claiming it still allowed counties to determine judicial supplemental benefits, even allowing counties to decide not to pay the benefits at all. This time, however, the courts disagreed with Sturgeon, ruling that the legislative fix was an "interim measure" and that the possibility of future lawsuits would force the legislature to enact a uniform compensation system.

"The [previous court's] forecast of further litigation was certainly right," Bedsworth wrote. "But the legislature did not heed the prediction."

In April 2014 Sturgeon filed a third lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent further benefits payments to Los Angeles county judges. The third lawsuit - which was filed with the aid of watchdog group Judicial Watch - alleged that the $57,000 in retirement, health plan, and professional development benefits paid to each county judge was over and above what the California constitution allowed.

But Bedworth and his colleagues held the state legislature got it right the second time (albeit with some superfluous language), noting that the revised code fixed the payment issue by requiring uniform payment to all judges within a county (and allowing for some discrepancy based on geographical location).

"The legislature built better than it knew," Bedsworth wrote. "Properly construed, [the revised code] requires those counties paying supplemental benefits as of July 1, 2008, to continue paying them on the same terms and conditions ... to all judges of the county's superior court, not just those judges who held office as of July 1, 2008."

Therefore, according to Bedsworth, "counties thus have no discretion under [the revised code] to fix compensation-it has already been fixed by the legislature."

"Any taxpayer can read this decision and say 'My gosh, something is going on,'" said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, noting that the revised code clearly had been intended to be temporary, and yet it is still on the books six years later. "It shows how bad things are in California where even judges have to be sued to protect the rule of law."

Fitton said Judicial Watch will "probably appeal" to the California Supreme Court.

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