Could a lawsuit seeking to cut pensions for Orange County sheriff's deputies be tried fairly in one of the county's own courtrooms?
That question is at the heart of a motion filed recently by the board of the county retirement system, which has been sued by Orange County in a closely watched battle over $187 million in benefits.
The board of the Orange County Employee Retirement System seeks to move the case to Los Angeles County, noting that many court employees -- including sheriff's deputies who provide courtroom security -- are members of the very retirement system named as a defendant in the case.
But lawyers for Orange County, which sued at the direction of the Board of Supervisors, want to keep the case on home turf. The county said that the move request was premature and that, in any case, the retirement board was not entitled to select a "preferred venue" such as Los Angeles. A hearing on the matter was set for March 21.
In a case infused with political undertones, the venue will be heavily scrutinized for any effect it may have on the outcome.
At the urging of John Moorlach, the Board of Supervisors voted to sue the retirement system, saying the county's 2001 contract with the union representing sheriff's deputies is unconstitutional because it committed the county to deficit spending. The deputies union says that the agreement, which is similar to others approved for virtually every law enforcement union in the state, was negotiated fairly and that the county has no legal right to revoke benefits already granted.
Moorlach, who became Orange County's treasurer after its 1994 bankruptcy, has built his political reputation on fiscal responsibility and has long advocated reining in public employee pensions, which are consuming a growing share of government resources. But he also has a history of bad blood with the deputies union, which opposed his campaign for supervisor. Moorlach has said there is no personal animus behind his proposal.
The case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Thierry P. Colaw, who was appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. In a 1999 profile in the Los Angeles Daily Journal legal newspaper, Colaw said he sometimes liked to place an oversize pair of dice on his desk during settlement discussions in chambers to remind lawyers that going to trial is a gamble.
In its motion, the retirement board said state law allows cases to be moved when the dispute involves a county taking aim at another local agency -- in this case, particularly because court staff could be directly affected by the outcome. It suggested Los Angeles as a convenient geographic alternative and because it has a system designed to handle similar types of cases.
Orange County opposed the request, saying that the pension board failed to follow certain procedural rules and that it is not a "local agency" under the law it is citing as the basis for its request. The county said it should be up to the judge to decide whether to keep the case, move it or bring in a judge from another county to handle it locally.
The deputies union has not been named as a defendant in the case but plans to join the litigation as an interested party. A lawyer for the union, James Bennett, declined to comment Thursday.