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Life's Tough, Your Honors

February 07, 2003

California's trial judges don't earn the mega-bucks or stupefyingly huge stock options of some executives or even the $1-million-a-partner draws of some lawyers. But if they stay on the bench 20 years and retire at age 60, judges pull in a $105,000-a-year pension. At 92% of their current salary, that's not a bad chunk of change. Add the $513 a day the state pays retirees if they fill in for a sitting judge who is sick or on vacation and the picture gets rosier.

Still, many judges are howling about how much they'll lose now that Chief Justice Ronald M. George insists that retirees choose between taking those fill-in assignments and the pot of gold they might earn deciding private disputes. No sympathy here.

The chief justice's new policy, which took effect last week, will close the revolving door that has enabled many retired judges to work both sides of the fence, as $513-a-day substitutes and then by deciding celebrity divorces or business disputes for rich clients at $4,000 a day. Private judging has exploded in recent years, with wealthy clients willing to pay retirees handsomely to decide their cases out of the public eye. Private recruiters say half of the men and women who hang up their black robes print business cards and set up a business phone line.

Because private judges depend on satisfied repeat customers to build their practices, clients in the county courts could lose out as judges are drawn into serious conflicts of interest. George cites the example of a Los Angeles judge he declined to name who, while sitting on assignment, called a recess in a complicated trial so he could attend to the clients who were paying him directly. And because parties may, over time, have lawsuits in both venues, the potential exists for judges helping out in the county courts as well as sitting judges thinking of retirement to please those who might one day bring them business on the side.

Some judges pout that by forcing retirees to choose between their private clients and public assignments, George will trigger an exodus of experienced jurists from public courtrooms. Other judges believe that threat is overblown.

Judges who squawk that most of their colleagues are honest and fair-minded are right. But the chief justice has taken a prudent step to keep it that way.

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