County-provided judicial benefits, including car allowances, pension contributions and training reimbursements, may soon be perks of the past.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal on Friday revived (.pdf) a taxpayer's challenge to the generous package of benefits that Los Angeles County provides to Superior Court judges. The sweeteners are improper, the panel said, because they were never approved by the Legislature. And only the Legislature, the unanimous three-justice panel said, has the authority to set judicial compensation.
The decision is a victory for Washington, D.C.’s Judicial Watch, which argued that Los Angeles County’s policy of offering state judges the same benefits as salaried county employees “an unconstitutional gift of public funds.”
In addition to their annual salaries of $178,789, trial court judges receive state-provided health insurance and other benefits. Los Angeles County also provides local judges a lump sum equal to 19 percent of their income — $33,970 this year — to spend on medical, vision and dental insurance. Whatever they don’t spend on health coverage they can take as taxable income. Judges also receive a professional development allowance from the county — $6,876 last year — to spend as they see fit. LA County also matches judges’ contributions to their 401(k) plans, up to 4 percent, or $7,152, of their salaries.
County leaders argued that they have to offer the extra perks to attract the best jurists to a region with a high cost of living. The Fourth District panel didn’t disagree, and in fact said that state law allows judges to receive extra goodies. But, the court said, the state must OK any extras that counties want to provide to judges.
Lawyers for Judicial Watch and the county did not immediately return phone calls Friday afternoon. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court said she was unaware of the ruling in Spurgeon v. Los Angeles County and declined to comment.
County-financed benefits for judges are a throwback to the 1990s when counties, not the state, operated trial courts. Some counties, usually in urban areas of the state, still offer locally funded benefits to judges. Noting the disparity from county to county, Chief Justice Ronald George said in 2007 that he wanted to increase benefits in certain areas to make them more uniform statewide. But nothing ever happened.
The appellate court panel reversed the January 2007 decision by First District Associate Justice James Richman granting the county summary judgment. Richman was assigned the case after the entire Los Angeles bench was recused.
— Cheryl Miller