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California's Superior Court judges are paid $178,789 a year and have generous medical and retirement benefits %u2013 up to 75 percent of their salary. Los Angeles County's judges fare even better because the county pumps another $47,726 into their compensation.
It's been happening for years, but it's also been illegal for years, a state appellate court ruled last October in a lawsuit brought by Harold Sturgeon.
Sturgeon alleged the extra pay violated a section of the state constitution saying the Legislature sets judicial compensation, aimed at preventing judges from being bribed by local officials. A local judge ruled %u2013 not surprisingly %u2013 that Sturgeon's case was without merit. The appellate court overruled him.
That created a dilemma. Not only would the county have to stop paying the extra money, but conceivably county supervisors, who approved the payments, could be liable for illegal disbursement of public funds.
The solution was a quick legislative fix. One of the many "trailer bills" in last month's multibillion-dollar budget package, called "Sturgeon fix" in legislative documents, authorizes Los Angeles and other counties to provide extra payments and protects county officials from liability.
It's another illustration of how state budget bills have become vehicles for matters that have nothing to do with the budget but are slipped through without public airing. Indeed, the package was enacted while most of California's 38 million residents were still sound asleep early one Thursday morning.
One wonders how Los Angeles County's taxpayers would have reacted had they known that the Legislature was approving extra judicial payments while the county's supervisors are staring at a $200 million budget deficit and contemplating steep cuts in services, especially those to the poor and unemployed, in a county with a jobless rate of nearly 11 percent.
The biggest extra pops for the judges are the same "Megaflex" benefits, 19 percent of their salaries, that county employees get, even though judges are now considered state employees. That's $33,970 per judge.
It is supposed to be used to buy medical, dental and disability coverage, but anything not spent for those benefits can be taken as extra taxable income. And as state employees, L.A.'s judges already are supplied with health benefits from another source.
In addition, each judge gets a $6,876 "professional development allowance," which can be spent on almost anything related to the job, such as attendance at judicial conventions. Finally, each judge gets up to $6,880 for a private retirement plan over and above the ordinary pension system.
Los Angeles County has 439 Superior Court judgeships, so those extra payments amount to about $21 million a year, more than 10 percent of its deficit. County officials contend the extra compensation is needed to attract qualified judicial candidates. That's always the excuse when someone gets an extra bite of the public apple.