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Counties are not allowed to give judges extra compensation

By Laura Ernde (this article was published in the Daily Journal in OCTOBER 13, 2008)

A state appellate court ruled
Friday that Los Angeles County is
not allowed to give its judges extra
compensation on top of their state
The 4th District Court of Appeal
ruling breathed new life into a taxpayer
rights lawsuit challenging
the extra retirement and health
benefi ts, which amount to about
$46,000 a year for each of the
county’s judges.
Under the California constitution,
the Legislature has to set salaries
and cannot delegate that authority,
said the unanimous three-judge
panel based in San Diego. Sturgeon
v. County of Los Angeles, D050832
“Thus, the practice of the County
of Los Angeles of providing Los
Angeles County Superior Court
judges with employment benefi ts,
in addition to the compensation
prescribed by the Legislature, is
not permissible,” Justice Patricia D.
Benke wrote. Justices Gilbert Nares
and Judith L. Haller joined her in
signing the opinion.
The court stopped short of saying
the judges’ extra benefi ts amounted
to an unconstitutional gift of public
funds or a waste of taxpayer money.
In fact, the panel pointed out that
state lawmakers were well aware
some counties with higher costs
of living boosted judge benefi ts to
attract qualifi ed candidates to the
bench and expressly approved of
the dual payments in the LockyerIsenberg
Trial Court Funding Act
of 1997.
Los Angeles County has given
extra benefi ts to its judges since the
late 1980s. The county is the largest
in the state, employing 430 of the
state’s 1,500 judges.
Los Angeles is not the only
county that employs the practice,
dubbed “double dipping” by some
critics. Friday’s opinion did not address
payments by other counties.
The Judicial Council has been
working to reduce the disparity of
judicial pay.
William C. Vickrey, administrative
director of the Administrative
Offi ce of the Courts, said he could
not comment on the court decision,
but planned to look at it for guidance.
“The council’s goal is to improve
the benefi ts for the purposes of
being able to attract and retain a quality judiciary,” he said.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles
County Superior Court declined to
comment on the ruling.
“While it does affect the courts,
the defendant is L.A. County, not
the Superior Court,” said spokesman
Allan Parachini. “We are not
parties to that lawsuit and it is a
pending case in the Court of Appeal
and it’s fairly likely that other
appeals will happen.”
The lawsuit was filed by Judicial
Watch, a conservative nonprofit
based in Washington, D.C. Attorney
Sterling E. Norris said he was still
reviewing the decision at press
Former Court of Appeal Justice
Elwood Lui of Jones Day in Los Angeles
represented the county on appeal.
He did not immediately return
a call for comment Friday.

Staff Writer Fiona Smith contributed
to this story

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