Attorney General asked to weigh in on judges’ $235,000 benefits

September 26, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: See the courts’ shrinking budget, a comparison of SLO County judges’ annual benefits from 1997 to 2010, a letter from the Commission on Judicial Performance to the attorney general and a letter from the California Judges’ Association to the attorney general at the bottom of this story.

By KAREN VELIE

California’s Attorney General is deciding whether the Commission on Judicial Performance can discipline San Luis Obispo County judges for giving themselves perks that total more than $235,000 a year, according to documents and sources familiar with the issue.

The commission says that judges have improperly padded their benefits. It wants to know if a state law protects the judges from discipline or prosecution, the request to the attorney general’s office reads.

The judges’ votes to take additional perk without oversight or legislative approval has drawn criticism from the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

“No government should be without oversight and able to raise their own salaries,” Kris Vosburgh said. “At no level of government should the foxes be governing the hen house.”

The 1998 Trial Court Funding Act moved control of court spending out of the state’s county boards of supervisor’s hands to the judges in order to make the court system more efficient and uniform. It was part of a plan to reform the courts’ budgeting process. But, the Legislature did not complete the second part and the state’s judges kept the power and the ability to set their own benefits without any public accountability.

After getting control of the local state court budget, judges in San Luis Obispo County began voting themselves perks without complying with the Brown Act, fair political practices or state regulations on public appropriations, according to emails from San Luis Obispo superior court and documents.

SLO judges’ perks, on top of benefits provided by the state, have become some of the most generous in the state, according to a 2009 Report to the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review.

SLO judges get an average salary of $178,789 per year. But the judges also split an extra $235,000 a year in perks.

Perks include $72,000 a year for car allowances even though the judges do not drive as part of their job responsibilities. The judges also get $101,664 in cash to spend on health and other insurance plans, according to court staff.

In 2004, the judges voted to create an education allowance of $46,200 to split amongst themselves. The judges get the money, paid in cash, and are not required to provide receipts. The judges also charge the court budget for classes they attend, former courthouse insiders told CalCoastNews.

Even though other state judges chose to retain the benefits packages they received while under the control of their boards of supervisors, SLO’s judges, who served at the time, agreed to substantially raise some former benefits and add new benefits categories, according to the 2009 report to the Legislature and information from more than a dozen county courts.

While still under the county’s control, SLO’s judges split $396 for long term disability, $973 for term life insurance, $877 for a fitness plan and  $350 for a cafeteria health plan, said SLO Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly.

After gaining control of their budget, SLO’s judges voted to add a car allowance of $72,000 and increase their cafeteria-style health plan to $101,664, Matherly said.

Even though the state constitution only allows the Legislature to raise or set judicial compensation, the judges of San Luis Obispo County voted to raise or create new benefits on several occasions, courthouse insiders said.

And, only San Luis Obispo County judges voted in new benefits packages using state court funds without getting Legislative approval.

Sources intimately involved in the courts said SLO judges were told repeatedly that their actions appeared to be unconstitutional, but refused to relinquish their extra benefits.

Calls to the San Luis Obispo County judges involved in the benefits increases were not returned.

Gere Sibbach, the county auditor controller, said he argued with the judges over an attempt they made to provide themselves cash value annuities.

“I have had many concerns with them,” Sibbach said.

In addition to voting to increase their salaries, several former staffers who asked to remain unnamed said that shortly after SLO County judges took control of the court budget, they spent lavishly on themselves, ordering expensive office remodels, new designer furniture, Blackberries, air cleaning systems and laptop computers.

The judges no longer have cell phones and have now enacted polices requiring them to purchase furniture from specific companies in order to control costs, Matherly said. Matherly dismissed the concerns saying that the spending took place 10 years ago.

“It’s old news and not worth reporting,” she said.

In May, the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance asked for the opinion on the legality of judges voting in benefits using state court funds without appropriation by the Legislature, as is required in California’s constitution.

“Although the supplemental compensation in Los Angeles was authorized by the county, judges in other counties have authorized supplemental compensation for themselves from court funds without any action by a legislative body,” the Commission’s Chief Counsel Victoria Henley wrote in her request to the attorney general.

SBX2 11, a bill that appears to prevent the judiciary commission from disciplining judges for padding their benefits, was enacted in response to a lawsuit against Los Angeles County. That suit challenged the county’s ability to vote in supplemental benefits for its judges using county money.

Although Los Angeles County won its suit, SBX2 11 was inserted into the state’s Budget Act at the last minute and passed the same day, the request said.

The Commission argues that only it and the California Supreme Court have the authority to decide on disciplining state judges.

“The Legislature cannot directly or indirectly remove that authority,” the request reads.

California’s Judges Association has fired back strongly in a letter to the Attorney General.

“The Legislature can make laws to protect one from liability, whether civil, criminal or administrative, for past conduct. Whether viewed as a retroactive immunity from liability, a retroactive authorization of conduct, or a retroactive reduction of penalties to zero, this is within the power of the Legislature,” wrote Judge Keith Davis, president of the California Judges Association.

Davis argued that the Legislature has the power to set laws.

“Where the issue is whether a judge can be disciplined for a violation of the law, as is the case here, it is absolutely a legislative prerogative to determine what is and is not a violation of the law,” Davis wrote.

Meanwhile, the state court system budget, under the control of state judges, is $350 million in the red. The judges’ benefits come from the state court budget.

 

 

Courts’ shrinking budget

In July, California Judicial Branch leaders met to vote on how to allocate the courts’ shrinking budget, which will be slashed $350 million from a total of $3.5 billion.

SLO County’s court, with an operating budget of about $19 million a year, is facing a $1 million budget deficit.

Slated budget cuts include furlough Fridays to begin in October and the temporary closure of the Grover Beach court branch in January.

The 145 employees of the courts lose up to 20 percent of their pay because of furloughs. The judges will keep getting full paychecks even as their work weeks go to four days.

State law does not allow the judges to have their pay reduced, Matherly said.

“The reason the judges can’t take a salary cut is because there is no legislative authority to do so, Matherly said.

In the past Judges Ginger Garrett, Jac Crawford, Linda Hurst, Martin Tangeman, John Trice, Charles Crandall and Roger Picquet participated in a voluntary salary waiver program, she said.

According to the Constitution, the Legislature cannot lower judiciary pay. Doing so could allow legislatures to punish judges who did not rule the way they would like them to, Matherly said.

 

 

Comparison of SLO County judges annual benefits from 1997 to 2010.

1997 – County control       2004 to 2010 – judges control

Long term disability     $396                                 $396

Term life insurance      $973                                 $973

Wellness/fitness          $877                                 $877

Health flex plan           $350                                 $101,664

Life insurance              $0                                    $12,853

Education allowance    $0                                    $46,200

Car allowance              $0                                  $72,000

 

 

Letter from the Commission on Judicial Performance to the attorney general

 

 

California Judges’ Association response to the attorney general


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Gordo

I know how this is going to turn out; the attorney general will cover them and nothing will be done to these judges. But somebody please explain how what they have done and what the Bell City counsel did is any different. Isn’t what they did an abuse of power? How about embezzlement. If they want to senback message either remove them from office or at least make them pay the money back.

Everybody else is living hand to mouth and the people are living like royalty.


Kevin Rice

I wouldn’t take such a jaundiced view of the A.G. so quickly. Attorney General opinions are typically very thorough. Further, they are NOT the final say on the matter. In fact, A.G. opinions are simply opinions. These opinions are utilized by state agencies as basis to proceed on best belief. One can still challenge the A.G.’s point of view, though it would be very rare. Wait and see.


willie

They rip off legally and prosecute those ripping off illegally.

What a racket.

We have clowns to left of us and jokers to the right of us.


r0y

What do we expect when we hire lawyers to make, enforce, and circumvent the laws? I’m sorry, but anyone who voted a politician “with a background in law” into ANY office deserves what they get.


Professors and lawyers should not be politicians, it just seems to end worse…


cheseburger

Professors are okay lawyers should stay lawyers, judges do not have to have such a back ground of litigation, only knowledge of the law.


Side_Show_Bob

Professors are FAR from “OK!”


cheseburger

Why?


cheseburger

Well we could go with HOMER SIMPSON!


z

What this does not say that this is all on top of the benefits that they recive from the state. The state provides them with Medical,Dental, Vision and Retirement. I understand that they just gave up the cell phones just last month.


Rawhide

Holy, Moley

Has SLO become The City of Bell, CA


racket

San Luis Obisbell?


Typoqueen

Oh that’s a good one, I’m going to take that. Obisbell will be used in my posts.


Kevin Rice
rallyraid

Dollar for dollar SLO surpassed Bell by leaps and bounds decades ago. Unfortunately all the way to the top corruption exists that hasn’t been exposed quite yet, but its coming.


r0y

That’s if the Fed’s don’t actually do anything with our corrupt, lying mayor…


danika

Well, TQ, here is that hot story you were curious about..and it’s a doozy! Good job, CCN! We would have had no idea this was happening without your diligent and thorough reporting.


To say this is an outrage is, well, a total understatment. These are the people who decide our legal fate?


I hope they all are audited from every imaginable department and held to the fullest legal action possible.


Typoqueen

Yep, this looks like it.


This is absolutely shameful. I feel that this is worse than the City of Bell thing as these are judges, they hold people’s futures in their hands. They make life changing decisions and they put crooks away when in reality they are no better than many of the crooks that they send to the big house.


r0y

The corruption in SLO runs so deep, so vast, I must plead:


IS THERE NO HONORABLE PUBLIC SERVANT LEFT IN SLO?!


Thank God for CCN, exposing this crap week after week – the collusion with local media and political machines is astonishing! It’s as if it is a nice little system, where all the elected or appointed leaders of civic institutions dare not rock the boat, as their turn in the comfy chair is forthcoming.


So, we’re left with a nothing DA, a nothing judiciary, a nothing Board of Supervisors, a nothing mayor(s)… WHEN DOES IT END?


PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE people, KNOW who you vote for. IGNORE that (D) or (R) and LISTEN to these candidates, READ their history and records. Do whatever it takes, and if need be, RUN YOURSELF. I’m getting very tempted to run for *something* soon… except I am such an ornery cuss, I’d offend more people than I’d please.


Typoqueen

You know r0y it seems like people running unopposed is becoming more common. It seems like people are becoming apathetic. More and more we are choosing the lesser of evils. On the other hand these people also have great skills at fooling people, they are like car salesmen. Hill seemed okay while he was running. I remember when he came to my door, he seemed like an good guy but one kinda expects to find bums and liars in politics. Now we can’t even trust our judges! Although these judges are elected we still don’t expect them to act like politicians, they’re supposed to be above all that.


RU4Real

You’re correct rOy, there are ABSOLUTELY no honorable public servants in SLO COUNTY. Don’t forget folks, San Luis Obispo County has the reputation of being THE MOST corrupt county in California!


Mr. Holly

“It’s old news not worth reporting.” Is that the statute of limitations or is that a defense that the common criminal can invoke.

Now I’m really starting to put all of the pieces to the puzzle together. Conclusion is that San Luis Obispo IS crime ridden within it’s governmnet.

It’s time for the people to step forward and demand a cleansing of the system.


Hats off to CCN for a well deserved WHOOYA


racket

If your court date is tomorrow, you may want to skip it (like Hill did), as I suspect there are going to be a lot of teed-off judges presiding…


bobfromsanluis

” …. as I suspect there are going to be a lot of teed-off judges presiding… ” probably because they got caught, not because of the behavior. Don’t you wonder how many of the judges make statements to defendants when being sentenced about ” being sorry that you got caught, not because you did something illegal”. As for the legislature not being able to change or modify judges salaries due to possible retribution for a judge’s ruling in a way that the legislature doesn’t like, hells bells it seems like a judge could do anything outrageous and if it is not illegal or unethical, there is no real oversight. I seem to remember that there is some sort of judicial review panel, but do they have any real “teeth”? I think that the legislature should rewrite the law concerning judicial pay so that the judges salaries can be reduced to help save costs, especially if the judges are only going to be “working” four days a week and not five.


Typoqueen

Good point racket, that’s funny and probably true. I really would be a bit more nervous if I had to go to court tomorrow.


cheseburger

“as I suspect there are going to be a lot of teed-off judges presiding,”

My queen , I have to go to court tomorrow, this article just blind sided me no heads up from any of my blogger friends and Tagerman already hates me, although my defendant has confessed and has been indicted, for the same civil causes of action, I have sued him for.


I went after Grigger Jones hard under another judge for being paid with Hurst investor’s monies, well guess what Grigger Jones is a Protem Judge and he is squeaking by this forgery charge of Nancimeek’s father’s will. This article explains why if you read between the lines.


Nanci feels he is an honest judge even though he transferred her case to Hawaii, via Jone’s request, I sure hope he is honest, but I am wondering how much sleep I’ll get tonight.


Bright side one of my defendants James Hurst Miller, has been indicted for forgery and will have to be ordered to pay restitution to the plaintiff, “ME” Many attorney’s have told me this!


I would think so too, but it seems they write the script as the day goes by. If I am thrown out of court with a winning case, I personally will beat down the Attorney General’s door and be shot or have a word with him regarding this godforsaken run away legal system in SLO county.


everyman

I bet AG sees it as fair compensation.


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