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L.A. County judges may face a steep cut in pay

A legal battle looms after a program hiking jurists' compensation in L.A. County is ruled unconstitutional.

January 03, 2009|Victoria Kim

A battle has been roiling in the courts over whether judges in Los Angeles County are entitled to a long-standing benefits program that boosts their pay well above that of their colleagues all across California.

The California Supreme Court last week refused to review an appeals court decision ruling unconstitutional more than $46,000 in benefits each judge receives from the county, opening up the possibility that judges here might be taking a steep pay cut in the near future.

With the benefits, judges in L.A. County each receive a total of $249,413 annually. By contrast, the base salary for judges statewide is $192,386, including benefits. Although some counties provide additional money to judges -- as much as $20,000 -- Los Angeles County judges receive by far the most.

L.A. County judges and their advocates say that the cut would put their pay below that of some prosecutors and even court commissioners, and that there would be little incentive for talented attorneys to serve the public by becoming judges. Critics say the cash perks, which supplement the state-paid salary and benefits, are an illegal use of county taxpayers' money for the politically influential L.A. County bench.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, January 10, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 129 words Type of Material: Correction
Judges' pay: An article and chart in the California section Jan. 3 about Los Angeles County judges' salaries erred in reporting what deputy district attorneys earn. The article, about legal challenges to a benefits program that means L.A. judges earn more than other judges in the state, said some deputy district attorneys in the county are paid $251,020 in salary and benefits (compared with $249,413 in salary and benefits for a judge in L.A. County). While in theory that is the amount a deputy district attorney could earn under the current benefits system, district attorney's office spokeswoman Jane Robison said deputy district attorneys at the top salary level at this time are part of an earlier benefits system and can receive a maximum of $234,171 in salary and benefits.

At least two judges have publicly said they will be leaving the bench because of the possible cut. A "significant" number of others have mentioned they are considering doing the same, said Judge Charles "Tim" McCoy, the county's incoming presiding judge.

State Chief Justice Ronald George said although he agreed that the benefits are needed for recruitment, the existing pay system is unfair to judges in other parts of the state, some of whom live in such areas as San Francisco with comparable costs of living.

"I think that there's a lot of feeling around the state that whatever is needed in one county is just as well justified in another county," he said in an interview this week.

The benefits, which amount to about 30% of the state-paid salary and cost L.A. County about $21 million in 2007, have been paid since the 1980s.

A 2006 lawsuit brought by Washington, D.C.-based conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch contended that all county-funded benefits should have been turned off after a 1997 law put judges on the state payroll. Lawyers for the group argued that the perks, some of which can be taken in the form of taxable income, were an "unconscionable waste of taxpayer funds" because comparable perks are provided by the state.

That lawsuit followed in which George called the county benefits "double-dipping" because of similar state perks and criticized the disparity it opens up between judges in the county and elsewhere in the state.

A judge who was brought in from outside the county to avoid a conflict of interest threw out the lawsuit before it went to trial, finding that the benefits were lawful. That decision was overturned in October, when an appeals court ruled that although the benefits were not illegal gifts, they violated a constitutional provision that requires that judges' pay be determined by the Legislature. Last week, the state Supreme Court unanimously voted to let the appellate decision stand.

The case now returns to trial, where attorneys for Judicial Watch said they will seek a court order to immediately halt payment of the benefits.

With that possibility looming, Judge Joe Hilberman, who sits on the bench in Santa Monica, said he decided to leave after seven years in service to go into private judging and mediation.

"I just can't keep this job, I just can't afford to, and we don't have an extravagant lifestyle," said Hilberman, 60, who said his younger daughter's college fund was reduced by the economic downturn and his wife is due to retire from her teaching position at UCLA. "It's the most difficult professional decision I've ever made."

Critics point out that even without the benefits, the state's judges are the best-paid in the nation, with their base salary at nearly $180,000. (When adjusted for cost of living, though, they come in 25th.)

Sterling Norris, an attorney for Judicial Watch, said benefits were unlawful payments retained by jurists behind taxpayers' backs. Benefits paid by other California counties pale in comparison to those paid by Los Angeles, Norris said.

"There is a doctrine of criminal law that if you receive money and you know you're not authorized to have it, it is theft," he said.

McCoy said the benefits were necessary to recruit a diverse pool of judges for the county's courts. Without the perks, the courts would not be able to lure top attorneys from the district attorney's or public defender's office, McCoy said, noting that minorities who seek judicial appointments often come from those offices. Some deputy district attorneys in the county are paid $251,020 in salary and benefits.

But the problem is statewide, said William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the California courts, because the state's health and retirement plans for judges fall behind those of many counties. Judges have always been paid in a "piecemeal" way, and that system created problems leading to the current lawsuit, he said.

Vickrey said the state's judicial council will be taking measures to improve compensation for judges across California.

"I think the current judges become the inadvertent victims if we don't do anything," he said.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

$192,386

Base salary and benefits of a California judge

$249,413

Salary and benefits of a judge in L.A. County

$251,020

Salary and benefits of an L.A. County deputy district attorney (level V)

Source: L.A. Superior Court

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