S.C. Turns Down Challenge to Local Judicial Benefits

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Metropolitan News-Enterprise

Thursday,
March 10, 2016

Page
1

S.C. Turns Down Challenge to Local Judicial Benefits

By
a MetNews Staff Writer

The
California Supreme Court yesterday let stand a Fourth District Court of Appeal
ruling that allows counties to continue paying benefits to local trial judges.

The
justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted 5-1 to deny review
in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2015)
242 Cal.App.4th 1437. Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar voted to hear the case, while
Justice Leondra Kruger, who gave birth March 1, did
not participate.

The
high court said last week Kruger is expected back to work in time to hear
arguments in Los Angeles April 6.

The
case turned down by the justices was brought by Harold Sturgeon, represented by
the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. It was a taxpayer action in which
the plaintiff claimed that the “fix” enacted by the Legislature in response to
a prior decision that such benefits were unconstitutional had been improperly
applied in favor of judges who took office after the new law was enacted.

The
ruling by Div. Three was the third appellate decision in nearly a decade of
litigation between Sturgeon and Los Angeles County over its payments to members
of the local bench.

Judges
in other counties have long complained that their benefits are far less
generous than those paid by Los Angeles County, which include participation in
the county’s “MegaFlex” cafeteria benefits program,
along with a “professional development allowance” and a 401(k) match of up to
four percent of the judge’s salary.

Those
payments now total over $57,000 annually, significantly boosting each judge’s
state salary of $189,041, while judges in other counties get less. Justice
William Bedsworth noted in his opinion that those in
three small counties “receive no supplemental benefits at all,” but said those
disparities can only be remedied by the Legislature.

Sturgeon I

In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008)
167 Cal.App.4th 630, the court held the county benefits to be “compensation,”
and therefor unconstitutional because only the Legislature may prescribe
compensation for judges.   

Lawmakers
then passed SBX2 11, creating Government Code §68220, finding that “[n]umerous counties and courts established local or court
supplemental benefits to retain qualified applicants for judicial office, and
trial court judges relied upon the existence of these longstanding supplemental
benefits provided by the counties or the court.”

Under that legislation, counties or courts that were
supplementing judges’ salaries as of July 1, 2008 were required to continue to
do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. Judges in office at the time
of the termination notice, however, would be entitled to benefits until the end
of their terms, or, at county option, until they leave the bench.

Sturgeon II

In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2010)
191 Cal.App.4th 344, the Fourth District’s Div. One upheld the new law,
rejecting the plaintiff’s claims that the existence of a county option, and the
continuing disparity in benefits, both rendered the law unconstitutional.

Justice
Patricia Benke described the new law as an “interim
measure,” saying that failure to pass a more “comprehensive response” would
likely lead to more litigation, and predicting that “the Legislature within a
reasonable period of time will act to adopt a uniform statewide system of
judicial compensation.”

The
prediction of more permanent legislative action did not come to pass, and the
prediction of new litigation did. The court, Bedsworth
wrote, therefore “must respond to Cassandra,” whose “punishment for refusing to
have sex with Apollo was a ‘gift’ of accurate prophecy accompanied by the curse
of having no one listen to her.”

Bedsworth
said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the passage of time had not
rendered the new law unconstitutional.

“[T]he
Legislature built better than it knew,” the justice said, concluding that while
further legislation may be desirable, it is not constitutionally necessary,
because the law does not delegate compensation decisions to counties.

“Properly
construed, section 68220 requires those counties
paying supplemental benefits as of July 1, 2008, to continue paying them on the
same terms and conditions as were in effect on July 1, 2008, and to pay them to all judges of the
county’s superior court, not just those judges who held office as of July 1,
2008,” Bedsworth explained.

Other Action

In
other conference action, the justices:

•Let
stand a First District ruling that the State Lands Commission violated the
public trust doctrine when it approved the dredge mining of sand from sovereign
lands under San Francisco Bay.

Div.
Four held in San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. v. State Lands Commission (2015) 242
Cal.App.4th 202 that review under the California Environmental Quality Act did
not obviate the need for separate consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims that
the plan was an inappropriate use of public trust land.

•Declined
to review a Fourth District ruling that upheld a lease-back financing plan
adopted by the City of San Diego to fund public infrastructure improvements.
Div. One held that because the bonds would be issued by a joint powers
authority created by the city and by its since-dissolved community
redevelopment agency, and not by the city itself, the debt ceiling imposed by
the state Constitution and the city’s charter did not apply.

Copyright
2016, Metropolitan News Company



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