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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Cindy

Well Ah ……. one government body who these Judges aren’t exempt from is the IRS . The car allowances they have afforded themselves are not tax exempt unless they actually keep mileage records that reflect everyplace they drove in the course of their work. Driving to and from the court house is exempt and doesn’t count. They must drive as a matter of the course of performing their job as a sitting judge outside the scope of traveling to and from their place of business.


Also the education allowance must be reported as unearned income unless they can provide receipts indicating that the funds were indeed spent for extended education. Since the judges submit receipts directly to the court house for reimbursement when they engage in extended education classes and pocket the funds they have allocated themselves from the budget, then that is considered unearned income just like the car allowances are.


Now what do you want to bet that very few if any of these judges claimed an added $11,800 of unearned income on their tax returns? I understand there are 10 judges who participate in these benefits? $11,800 each @ 15-28% over the course of 5 years with added interest and penalties is a big chuck to owe.


Cindy

I didn’t address the additional 10K they each receive for their health flex plans because I don’t know if they are applying that towards medical insurance. Apart from any upgrades they have implemented to their existing medical and dental coverage or wellness plans like going to the gym, these funds are also considered taxable unearned income.


So if we include these funds, each of these judges should have been claiming an average of $21,800 each year over the last 5 years as unearned taxable income on their IRS and State tax returns. Did they? My guess is that if they cheat the taxpayers to begin with, why would we believe they would pay taxes on it?


zaphod

Would anyone respect a judge who drove a second hand car, and rented a condo at the brickyard ?


Lewy

Here’s another fine investigative story from Karen Velie and the CCN that we won’t see in the local Tribune. Their front-page story Sunday focused on the placement of trash cans in the city. They will no doubt self-nominate themselves for a Pulitzer award.


RU4Real

Great job, Karen! Hopefully the AG will decide to investigate this. It’s certainly a step in the right direction in cleaning up the “massive corruption” in SLO County. The entire SLO County Government needs to be “investigated”. The “good old boy” network needs to be FINALLY broken up…


Kevin Rice

Yes. The A.G. does not investigate judges, however; that is the job of the Commission on Judicial Performance. In this instance, the A.G. is being asked for an opinion on the interpretation of applicable statute. The CJP would eventually discipline.


danika

Having chewed on this article all night, I am back here with the question: what can the collective “we” do about this? We all feel the outrage, the irony of our judges ruling by greed first, law second. There must be something all of us can do…suggestions?


Kevin Rice

Write comments to the A.G. regarding Opinion 11-603, and write the Commission on Judicial Performance. Also write your State Assemblyman and Senator. Letters to the editor provide a small kick in the pants as well.


oto

Get out the skewers, Mildred, we’re going to have another roast…Then, afterwards, let’s find out how to nominate the CCC reporting staff for a Pulitzer in the new, online news category.


For months, I’ve been staring at five pounds of bureaucratic paperwork related to the courts:

how to censure judges;

what their judicial duties and ethical obligations are;

how they should conduct themselves on the bench;

what the obligations and duties are of each superior court’s Administrator ;

and what the duties and responsibilities are of each superior court’s judicial administration.


Where do I begin to hone all this crap down, in order to state a clear and concise case to the State Assembly of California–which has the power to investigate and hold court on bloodsucking, moneylaundering, blackmailing judges who believe they don’t have to answer to anyone–so that justice really can prevail?


Until I read this article, and the related articles in the Scribed insets, I felt I could never pull it all together in a succinct complaint which hit the nail on the head. And then I read Velie’s fantastic, factual, researched, nugget of GOLD, and I am inspired to get my ass in gear, once again.


The subject matter of Velie’s article is one of the reasons why San Luis Obispo has been “chosen” to be one of only three “early adopter courts” to try out the state’s new “California Case Management System,” and “convert” all their internal court management and accounting records into new software formats.


The new statewide system promises to connect the state’s court computer systems together, then connect them to 128 other government agencies including those of law enforcement, social services, probation, public defenders offices, the offices of the district attorneys, and family service departments to name a few.


A new system such as this, which can make the stasi pale in comparison, calls for new regulations and laws controlling the actions of court personnel; much greater transparancy of court “operations” and limited immunity for prosecutors and judges alike where their conduct clearly violates the law.


There should be no immunity whatsoever for financial fraud and waste. The problem is, they are so good at using the cloak of their judicial office, robustly assisted by all those trial court union employees, to hide their own wrongdoing.


We could even the playing field to benefit the ends of justice if we stopped protecting judicial decisions which are shown by the usual evidentiary standards to be purely malicious, and not supported by the evidence or the facts of the case.


We would have a more egalitarian justice system and less political toxicity on the bench if we cut the highest paid judicial salaries in half, and used the money to hire twice as many judges.


I am both enraged at the incalcitrance of court supervisors who fail to provide training and leadership, and invigorated to know there are people still courageous enough to question what goes on in their own ranks. Change is coming. I am inspired to support people in my own local community who identify the problems in print and challenge the public to provide a solution.


For every problem, there is a resolution. For starters, the Assembly is the place to start when wanting to get rid of a corrupt judge. There are legislative subcommittees on the judiciary to write to. And there are specific state agencies with the power to audit the courts.


But right now, I’m going to tackle that pile of work, now that I have a role model to emulate. I’m going to cut it down, little by little, until I have a complaint as clear, hard, and cold as a diamond and I will send it off to every commission, committee, and agency, until I get that one person who has both and power and the will to remove that official or change the law.


The fight for what is right can take many forms. It is an endless and often greuling process. But when you understand that you are not alone in this, and that this is part of an ongoing and universal process, you have to do it for the sake of all.


SLOBIRD

We are so screwed at every level, by every party, be each politician. Where did society loose their moral compass. Does anyone not have any shame. 1.86% deduct in pay and 10.95% increase in benefits, plus a decease work week to 4 days and the state is paying your retirement, medical, dental and vision insurance. What the hell is the $101,000 health flex medical benefit going for. Why should any of you get a car allowance costing the taxpayers $72,000 a year as the rest of us are struggling finding money to pay to go to work and pay your damn salaries. AND YOU JUDGES THINK DAN DE VAUL IS THE CRIMIAL IN THIS COUNTY. SHAME ON EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU DIRT BAGS….


Typoqueen

Great job Karen! You didn’t let us down.


Everyone else said it all well, there are no new words for the outrage that I feel over this. These judges are greedy pigs.


Awhile back when the grand jury came in and showed us a lot of the waste in the city such as the many cars that the cops were taking home I wonder why this wasn’t noticed. Perhaps they GJ was just looking at city govt. but it seems that these judges would have stood out when investigating govt. waste.


This is very disturbing.


Kevin Rice

I don’t believe the courts are within GJ jurisdiction as they are a state entity.


unlisted

Mel Brooks said, “It’s GOOD to be king.”


It appears that it may be even better to be a judge.


ApathyWillKillYou

The SLO County judges didn’t take a SALARY cut, they gave them selves a BENEFIT increase!


I wanted to know who the 12 judges were specifically so I went to:

http://slocourts.net/

NO specific names of these judges that rule are very lives is revealed.


Then I went to the Monterey County Superior court website:

http://www.monterey.courts.ca.gov/General_Information/Judges_Directory.aspx

And ALL were named.


Then I went to the Santa Barbara County Superior court website:

http://www.sbcourts.org/general_info/judicial_officers/index.htm

And ALL were named.


I admit that I may not be the best Googler out there but I still can NOT find the names of ALL the SLO County judges online easily?


And another very interesting article in the TRIB of all places:

http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2011/02/15/1485061/san-luis-obispo-judges-voluntary.html


I am trying to back up my blog with facts rather than personal opinion.


But my personal opinion is the sentiment of so many which states that is obvious that the majority of elected ‘officials’ serve another agenda that is not at all in perspective with the constituency that elected them in the first place!


Remember ALL Superior Court judges are ELECTED… I repeat ELECTED to 6 year terms and should be subject to the same rules and regulatuions that most of the other ELECTED ‘officials’ choose to ignore also!


ApathyWillKillYou

According to the NEW math:


The judges were to take a pay cut of $40,000 between the 12 of them.

$40,000 ,divided by 12 = $3333 or 1,86% of their $178,789 salary.

http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2011/02/15/1485061/san-luis-obispo-judges-voluntary.html


Then according to CalCoastNews they gave them selves a $235,000 benefit increase divided by 12 = $19,583 each or 10.95% of their $178,789 salary.


So help me out because a 1,86% decrease followed by a 10.95% increase doesn’t make sense so I will be the first to admit that I must be way off.


I do know that that they don’t call it the ‘BROWN Act’ for not just any reason, but directly insuates the obvious metaphor!


Kevin Rice

The Brown Act doesn’t apply to courts. Public disclosure is required by Rule 10.500 of the California Rules of Court, which is less liberal than the Ralph M. Brown Act.


TacomaRose

This story is discouraging. As they say in Cantonese …Sumting Wong


I always held our judiciary (with exception of Labarbara) in high regard but something doesnt seem above board here and I hope each of the judges will weigh in with the public.


Here was the Tribunes take on some of this from an article in February. This was the headline and subline


“SLO judges’ voluntary pay cut saves California $40,000”

“8 agreed to reduce their salaries last year; 4 didn’t and worked on 10 furlough days”


Sounds like the Tribune took the bait …. hook line and sinker