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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Lilylu

Between the judges, the SLOPD, sherriff’s dept., SLO county scandals, Tribune, Los Osos sewer debacle, Atascadero and Paso Robles police depts …… no wonder this is the happiest place on earth…..The corrupt now out number the rest of us.


MaryMalone

I can’t help but wonder if this judicial financial fraud ( $172,000/year for a car allowance when their job does not require them to travel IS FRAUD) previously went unchallenged by local government as a means of giving the judges a taxpayer-funded bribe to rule in favor of local government’s interests?


This is fracking crazy. They are closing down the Grover Beach Court to save money, and these County whores in black robes are living the high life off of taxpayer funds.


Just keep it up, all of you political and judicial whores in SLO County. You’ve drawn the attention of the state AG twice in less than two years. We may get a City-of-Bell-style house-cleaning by the state in SLOCo yet.


MarkJames

I noticed that the Tribune picked up this story and decided to print it as if it was their story. They also had a friendly little chat with Judge Crawford and rewrote the story to his way of thinking without investigating anything he had to say. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a newspaper that was a bigger whore, honestly, the Tribune is a WHORE. They are doing a great deal of harm to us locals, it’s time to step up and have a truth out surrounding all the spin they have printed on so many, too many, stories. I would start with how they encouraged investors to keep throwing money at Gearhart, EFI and Hurst Financial. From there it never stopped, just one cover up after another right until this morning and this latest shill.


MaryMalone

I’m sure the Tribune is quite used to quid-pro-quoing with the judges. Just a little judicial insurance for Tribune-favored judgments from the local courts when needed.


MaryMalone

I wonder how many staff members that $235,000 would provide to County Mental Health?


Those judges are greedy piggies, greedily gobbling at the trough, sucking up funds that could be used to add some of the staff that has been cut at the County.


Politik

The ethically-challenged are turning up every where. Maybe these judges should run for Congress where they can really clean up.


cheseburger

“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”


One thing you are forgetting, the courts are in fact designed to make a hell of a lot of money from the tax payer who get’s caught.


While I was filing James Miller’s indictment from the Attorney General, I notice a man in a blue uniform with his hand on his gun.Carrying a large black bag and looking extremely nervous, gave him a smile, not a grin, no response, like a robot he carried the booty to the armored car.


If SLO county got on the ball and put in camera’s for red lights, and illegal U turns, even tailgating, it just might SLO things down a little and save a few lives and create tons of revenue.


I say this for on my trip to A-town for court, I almost hit a guy on a Harley wearing shorts and sandals, I honked he stopped, he had just made a U-turn from 9th street on to Ferrel ave., then back on to on 9th street going the other direction.


The sun was in my eyes, he came out of nowhere, lucky for him a similar thing had happened to me at the same intersection, so I always stop, 15 feet back from the white line there, we had a polite conversation.


I said, “The sun was in my eyes and if some one else had been driving, well you would of been hit broadside”. The biker was cool and all he could say was, “Thanks, I sure glad you didn’t”, for he knew he was in the wrong.


Next there was the speeding tanker truck, 75 mph, tailgators pushing me, I get all the way home and in the very same spot I almost hit the Harley another lame driver does a giant u-turn right where the guy on the Harley almost lost a leg. This is a main artery over the double yellows, a trouble spot for many years.


Semi off subject but, I have thought for thirty years, if they need money fine the reckless drivers, and if you don’t think I don’t call in the really bad ones, think again.


Bluebird

There was no public hearing for SBX2-11l. The Commission on Judicial Performance, the oversight agency was not notified and was not present. The addition was inserted at the last minute and passed the same day.

What I want to know is WHO made the addtion?


smartmouth

Again . . . disgusting.


Truth

“When a judicial officer acts entirely without jurisdiction or without compliance with jurisdiction requisites he may be held civilly liable for abuse of process even though his act involved a decision made in good faith, that he had jurisdiction.”

[Little v. U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 217 Miss. 576, 64 So. 2d 697]


oto

Reply to Harumph: I posted a reply to your 7:47 am post, but it ended up above…My further question to you is, when and where did the “judges grab the money for training?”