By Stephen F. Rudin
Attorney at Law 

'Because No One is Above the Law!'

Know the Law

 


The title of this story is the motto for Judicial Watch. You will see this tagline under the Judicial Watch logo on their website. The first paragraph of the Judicial Watch mission statement reads:

Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.

Through its educational endeavors, Judicial Watch advocates high standards of ethics and morality in our nation’s public life and seeks to ensure that political and judicial officials do not abuse the powers entrusted to them by the American people. Judicial Watch fulfills its educational mission through litigation, investigations, and public outreach.

Litigation is one means that Judicial Watch employs on behalf of their mission.

One particular case that I have been following is the Sturgeon v. Los Angeles County taxpayer lawsuit. In brief, my interest in that case arises from another suit. The complete back story to that interest exceeds the space and time available here. Suffice to say that taxpayer fraud, waste, and abuse lawsuits in Los Angeles County are lost more often than one would expect compared to other jurisdictions.

The main issue is that in addition to the judges State pay the county was providing the judges in Los Angeles with generous additional pay and benefits.

In total those payments amount to about 25 million a year of county taxpayer money. The heart of the issue is that “in 1998, the state of California took over funding of all state trial court operations, including, responsibility for payment of salaries and benefits to trial court judges.”

Despite the law, judges in Los Angeles received in addition to the compensation package as provided in State Constitution (Article IV sections 19 and 20 of the California Constitution) they also received generous compensation from Los Angeles County.

Judicial Watch in April 2006, representing taxpayer Harold P. Sturgen, brought a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. Basically, this citizen-taxpayer’s lawsuit sought to have the County payments declared illegal and to cease. The Los Angeles County court that heard the case and upheld the payments.

Judicial Watch timely appealed in 2008.

As stated in that Fourth Appellate District decision:

“Because the benefits provided by the County are compensation within the meaning of section 19, article VI of our Constitution, and because this record does not establish those benefits have been prescribed by the Legislature, the trial court erred in granting the County’s motion for summary judgment.”

The California Supreme Court denied review Dec. 23, 2008 leaving the Appellate decision to stand.

In December of 2008, Governor Schwarzenneger called the Legislature into a special session to address the issue of judicial payments. In February 2009, the California Legislature passed a bill signed into law by the Governor temporarily authorizing the County payments on an interim basis until a comprehensive response to the lawsuit could be enacted. Senate Bill No. 11 (2009-2010 2d Ex.) at the last minute was inserted into the budget act and passed the same day. There were no public hearings. This bill also included a section to immunize the judges who have received supplemental payments.

However, that section was determined to be unconstitutional on “Separation of Powers” by the Commission on Judicial Performance.

Back in court on remand, the trial court granted the County’s motion for summary judgment.

Judicial Watch then challenged whether the legislature sufficiently “prescribed” the payment of the supplemental benefits (Sturgeon II.) The Court of Appeals upheld the legislation, noting that it was not permanent. The Court found it a measure “to preserve the status quo” while the legislature adopts “a compensation scheme that deals with varying economic circumstances in an equitable and efficient manner.”

On April 1, 2014 Judicial Watch filed a motion in Los Angeles County for declaratory and injunctive relief (Case # BC541213.)

As noted in the papers filed, it has been five years and the legislature has not provided a state wide scheme for supplemental compensation.

The case is not over yet.

 
 

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