Friday, June 24, 2011
A.G. Seeks Input on Questions Regarding Judicial Benefits
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Attorney General Kamala D. Harris is soliciting judicial organizations and others to weigh in on the question of whether judges may be disciplined for authorizing supplemental compensation to be paid to themselves from public funds, it was learned yesterday.
The Commission on Judicial Performance submitted two questions to Harris in late May, inquiring whether lawmakers would have the authority to pass a measure which “purports to preclude the [CJP] from disciplining California superior court judges for authorizing supplemental compensation to be paid to themselves from public funds, and/or receiving that supplemental compensation, on the ground that such benefits were or are not authorized by law.”
Harris was also asked to address the scope of SBX2 11, special legislation passed in 2009 which the Fourth District last year said adequately addressed the deficiencies which had led it to declare the supplemental benefits unconstitutional in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630.
SBX2 11, by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, directed that counties and courts that were supplementing judges’ salaries were required to continue to do so, subject to termination on 180 days’ notice. The bill also immunized all public entities and officers against any liability resulting from past payment of local judicial benefits.
The CJP asked Harris if the measure’s provisions “simply identify which judges are permitted as of the effective date of SBX2 11 to continue receiving supplemental compensation from the effective date forward, on the terms and conditions in effect on July 1, 2008,” or if they “retroactively authorize all or some portion of supplemental compensation provided by counties to judges, or to judges themselves, so long as it was being provided as of July 1, 2008.”
Harris had sent out an initial request for comments on Monday which miscast the questions as inquiring about the receipt of benefits from counties over and above those given all judges under state law, a CJP spokesperson said. This issue was the subject addressed in the taxpayer lawsuit by Harold P. Sturgeon and Judicial Watch.
In 2008, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled the payment of such supplemental benefits to judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court was unconstitutional because only the Legislature could determine judicial compensation.
Benefits paid to the Los Angeles Superior Court judges since the 1980’s include participation in the “MegaFlex” cafeteria benefits program—which allows a beneficiary to receive additional taxable income equal to 19 percent of salary, or benefits costing the county an equal amount—along with a “professional development allowance” and a 401(k) match of up to four percent of the judge’s salary.
The CJP spokesperson declined give a specific reason for why the group had posed the questions to Harris, except to say “we wanted to know what she thought.”
Sturgeon and Judicial Watch had also unsuccessfully challenged the passage of SBX2 11, contending the Legislature had lacked authority to enact the measure because it addressed a subject—judicial compensation—that was not among the specified subjects for which the governor called the Legislature into session. That case was Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles, 191 Cal.App.4th 344.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company