Despite a budget crunch that has triggered government cutbacks and layoffs throughout the state, several Southern California counties voluntarily sweeten benefit packages for Superior Court judges with car allowances, "personal development" grants and other generous perks.
On top of their state salary and benefits, Superior Court judges in San Bernardino County take home an assortment of county-funded benefits, including a $383.25 monthly car allowance and a $541.66 monthly education stipend. The actual amounts are paid biweekly.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Perks for judges -- A March 22 article in the California section about perks paid to Superior Court judges incorrectly reported that judges in San Diego County receive $18,200 per year in extra benefits, provided by the county. The judges each receive about $12,000 per year in extra benefits, paid from court revenues.
Los Angeles County's benefits include $2,277 per month in extra medical insurance. Judges in San Diego County collect about $1,500 per month in perks, while Riverside County doles out nearly $1,200 monthly per judge.
The bonuses can boost a judge's annual salary of $143,838 by nearly 26%, in the case of Los Angeles County.
Court officials and others defend the arrangement as a way to attract qualified attorneys to the bench. San Bernardino County's former Presiding Judge J. Michael Welch said the perks are "based on realities and facts of life."
"In this county, the lawyers who work in the courts get paid a lot more than the judges who are hearing the cases," he said.
But considering the state's fiscal crisis, labor unions, taxpayer groups and others say the money spent on those perks should be used to save jobs and prevent cuts to public health programs, police protection and other essential services.
In Los Angeles County -- which has 429 Superior Court judges -- the benefits now cost the county more than $20 million a year. In counties with smaller court systems, the total benefits range from nothing for some counties, to $20,000 per year in Fresno County, to nearly $2 million annually in San Bernardino County.
"If there is a budget crunch and people are facing layoffs and demotions, then everything should be on the table, including the benefits," said Mark Tarnawsky, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 660, representing more than 50,000 Los Angeles County employees.The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors eliminated 2,000 jobs last year and froze salaries countywide. David Janssen, Los Angeles County's chief administrative officer, said the growing cost of judicial benefits was one of many factors that contributed to the county's budget woes. The cost of the perks has increased by more than $1 million, because they are tied to judges' salaries. Each time the judges get a state pay raise, county benefits increase.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors cut 218 positions last year and is expected to order more layoffs, because the state budget crisis is expected to force an 11% budget cut. The county's cost for judges' benefits rose from $1.7 million to $1.9 million between 2001 and 2004.
In Contra Costa County, where judges get a $250monthly car allowance, the benefits add up to $99,000 per year. In Ventura County, judges collect $10,071 per year from the county to supplement their medical benefits, costing county taxpayers $282,000 per year.
In Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, the benefits are paid biweekly, with no restriction on how the judges use the money. They can simply pocket it if they choose, county officials say. In other counties, the perks come with restrictions, such as when counties pay to let judges participate in county medical insurance programs.
Although eliminating the perks wouldn't solve counties' budget problems, critics say cuts would show that county officials are serious about saving jobs and public services.
In his Grand Jury report, Wilfred W. Steiner Jr., the foreman of last year's San Bernardino County Grand Jury, urged supervisors to reduce or eliminate judges' benefits, noting that the county had laid off hundreds of longtime county employees.
The supervisors voted to phase out the benefits starting in 2008. The benefits are an outgrowth of a 1997 state effort to transfer the responsibility of funding the courts from the counties to the state. All state and municipal judges became state employees, with the title "Superior Court Judge." But some judges worried that the transfer would mean a cut in benefits, which varied from county to county.
State lawmakers changed the legislation to permit counties to pay the perks, and to make clear that the law was not intended to reduce judges' benefits.
The law created confusion. Lawyers representing the courts interpreted it as a mandate for counties to continue paying the benefits indefinitely. The California Assn. of Counties believes the perks needed to be paid only until the end of each judge's current term. Caught between the two interpretations, some counties have taken a position somewhere in the middle.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted in August to end the benefits once the current judges leave office. Any new judge elected or appointed after August 2003 will not get the county-funded perks.