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Quest for Respect : Compensation Judges Win Right to Put On Robes

Times Staff Writer

Van Nuys workers’ compensation judges, who wore judicial robes in court earlier this year against the wishes of their superiors, will be permitted to don gowns because of a resolution adopted Monday by the state Assembly.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), authorizes the state’s nearly 120 workers’ compensation judges to purchase robes at their own expense and wear them if they choose, an aide to Robbins said.

The resolution passed the Senate on June 19 by a 21-9 vote and was adopted Monday by the Assembly in a 43-30 vote. It became effective immediately upon passage.

Robbins introduced the resolution in response to complaints by two judges at the State Office Building in Van Nuys, who wore robes in March before their supervisors warned them against “insubordination.”

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Judges Lester B. Volchok and Clayton Robins argued that robes add an air of decorum to the courtroom. Their superiors in the state Department of Industrial Relations favored a less formal setting for resolution of job-related injury disputes between workers and employers.

“We’re very elated,” Volchok said Monday. “I think this will permit the various courts to be able to perform their duties more efficiently.”

Sought Greater Respect

Workers’ compensation judges have long struggled for greater respect after years of being called “referees.” In 1975, their title was changed in department circles to “judge,” an action that became law Jan. 1, 1986, with a legislative amendment.

The Robbins resolution sought to clarify the state code section governing judges’ attire. The Government Code states that judges in Superior, Municipal, Juvenile and other courts must wear robes but does not specifically address workers’ compensation judges.

The legislative counsel’s office issued an opinion last year stating that workers’ compensation judges are not required to wear robes, but neither are they forbidden.

When judges in Van Nuys and West Los Angeles notified department officials that they intended to wear robes, they received a letter warning them that such “trappings of office” would be “inappropriate.”

Judge JoAnne Andrews, president of the Conference of California Workers Compensation Judges, said she will confer with members of her executive board before deciding whether to encourage all judges to wear robes or leave it to the individual.

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“We’re very pleased,” she said. “It’s an indication of support.”


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