Judges in Los Angeles county will likely lose over $40,000 in county benefits after taxpayer challenge

Greatsealcal100Salaries for judges in California are "prescribed" by the legislature via constitutional mandate. In Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (October 10, 2008) the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) all but declared unlawful a substantial benefits package provided by Los Angeles county to its superior court judges. The Court of Appeal reversed a summary judgment granted to Los Angeles county in a taxpayer suit challenging the payments by Los Angeles county. The Court summarized the conclusion:

Section 19, article VI of the California Constitution requires that the Legislature "prescribe compensation for judges of courts of record." The duty to prescribe judicial compensation is not delegable. Thus the practice of the County of Los Angeles (the county) of providing Los Angeles County superior court judges with employment benefits, in addition to the compensation prescribed by the Legislature, is not permissible. Accordingly, we must reverse an order granting summary judgment in favor of the county in an action brought by a taxpayer who challenged the validity of the benefits the county provides to its superior court judges.

(Slip op., at pp. 1-2.) The benefits in question are not insubstantial:

In sum, in addition to the salary, benefits and retirement prescribed by the Legislature, in fiscal year 2007 each superior court judge in Los Angeles was eligible to receive $46,436 in benefits from the county. This amount represented approximately 27 percent of their prescribed salary and cost the county approximately $21 million in fiscal 2007.

(Slip op., at p. 3.)  On December 23, 2008, the California Supreme Court declined to review the decision.  Based on the analysis in the opinion, it seems unlikely that the result will be anything but a ruling that Los Angeles must terminate the benefits package.

While the outcome may be constitutionally correct, the result is not ideal.  It is already difficult enough to entice qualified candidates to leave behind lucrative private practice for the often thankless work of the judiciary.  A loss of over $45,000 in benefits won't help.  As maxims go, "you get what you pay for" is one of the habitually accurate ones.  How many judges on the fence will now hit the eject button for the greener pastures of private mediation and arbitration?