SACRAMENTO — The state’s judicial disciplinary panel has asked Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office to review the legality of 2009 legislation that authorized courts and counties to provide extra pay and perks to trial court judges.
Specifically, the Commission on Judicial Performance wants to know if the Legislature had the authority to block disciplinary actions against judges who authorized or accepted “supplemental compensation” for themselves paid for with “public funds,” according to a letter sent to the AG’s opinion unit.
The letter also asks whether the 2009 legislation retroactively approved county- or court-provided benefits or simply prescribed the level of benefits going forward.
The answers could have a significant impact on hundreds of judges whose courts offer them a range of benefits, including car allowances, enhanced retirement and disability packages, and even gym memberships — above and beyond the extras already paid for by the state and, in some cases, counties. The Judicial Council in 2009 identified 16 courts that paid for extra benefits for at least some of its judges.
Victoria Henley, general counsel for the Commission on Judicial Performance, declined to say whether a specific disciplinary case prompted the panel to ask for the attorney general’s opinion.
Stanley Bissey, executive director of the California Judges Association, said his organization didn’t know about the commission’s inquiry until he received a letter from the attorney general’s office on Tuesday asking for the CJA’s thoughts on the issue.
“We’re all just sort of scratching our heads,” Bissey said.
Judges thought the issue was settled in 2009 when the governor signed SB2X 11, legislation that condoned court- and county-provided benefits. It also provided judges who had received the benefits immunity from any type of legal or disciplinary action.
The legislation was created in response to a lawsuit that challenged Los Angeles County’s payment of tens of thousands of dollars in supplemental benefits to each of its local judges. An appellate court struck down the payments, saying the Legislature had not properly prescribed them.