Judges across California can only look in wonderment and envy at their brethren on the Los Angeles Superior Court. In this town, judges make so much that a promotion to a higher level would mean a pay cut.
The reason: Los Angeles County officials allow the judges to draw duplicate benefits and perks from state and local taxes. As a result, the judges receive nearly $30,000 a year above their base salary of $118,000.
Although this compensation arrangement is largely unknown to the public, it is no secret to judicial insiders and county officials throughout the state. Some criticize it as “double-dipping.”
* Los Angeles County judges now receive $22,400 in cash from the county for health and insurance benefits, even though they are fully covered by the state. There are no strings attached to how judges spend that money. “If they wanted to go to Vegas on it they could,” says Los Angeles County spokeswoman Judy Hammond.
* The judges are given $5,520 each year in “professional development” money for legal journals, educational books and conferences. They are not, however, required to submit receipts showing where it goes. In fact, records show that judges have charged the state for educational expenses instead of using the money the county gave them for just that purpose.
* On top of the money judges receive in their paychecks, they also are well positioned for their later years. They receive two retirements programs at taxpayers expense--one from the county, one from the state.
And in the months ahead, when the judges receive their next raises, the extra income will climb higher too, costing county taxpayers as much as $16 million a year in redundant health benefits, retirement compensation and perks.
“I don’t know how the voters of Los Angeles County operate,” said Bay Area Judge Robert Dondero, who makes thousands of dollars less than his peers to the south. “I know that the San Francisco voters are tough on using public funds for a lot of things.”
Chief Justice of California Ronald George said the great disparity between the pay of Los Angeles County’s 400-plus judges and those laboring elsewhere in the state “doesn’t make sense.” Judges in L.A., he said, are “in effect, double-dipping for benefits.”
“The Legislature has the authority to say judges can’t have both,” George said, but he stopped short of urging specific action.
Of the five Los Angeles County supervisors, only one--Don Knabe--would comment publicly on why millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money is spent on duplicate benefits. He said the Board of Supervisors should consider whether to cut off the expenditures for newly elected judges. To do otherwise, he suggested, would be “dinging taxpayers.” He declined to address why this same criticism could not be made for current judges.
The size and political clout of the Los Angeles bench makes for a formidable opponent. Any effort to take money out of the jurists’ wallets would probably be met with a swift response.
Listen to the warning of Judge Charles W. “Tim” McCoy:
“I think it’s unlikely they would attempt to take these benefits away from one-third of the judges in the state. I think it would be unlikely and unwise. You can use those two words--unlikely and unwise.”
Los Angeles County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen conceded the difficulty of stripping away that which has been given. “Once something like this happens,” he said, “you can never get it away.”
In 1997, the Legislature blinked when it had the chance to try. While lawmakers were considering a bill to transfer court funding responsibilities from the counties to the state, the judicial community quickly raised concerns about the fate of their benefits, prompting jittery legislators to back off from the issue.
In the end, lawmakers added ambiguous language to the measure, saying that counties may continue paying benefits and that the law was not intended to take them away. Although some interpret the provision as a mandate to keep the benefits coming, others see it as allowing local officials to make the decision.
Whatever the case, critics of the perks say Los Angeles County has simply found a way to hike the income of judges who fervently believe that they deserve more than the Legislature gives them.
“If we really need to pay judges more, let’s do it statewide, but let’s not play this shell game,” said Karleen George, organizing coordinator of the union that represents, among others, rank-and-file court personnel.
The judges do not deny that they have grown accustomed to the extra income. But they say it’s legal and well deserved because of the volume and complexity of their cases. To draw and keep the best judges, taxpayers must shoulder some additional burden, they say.
Presiding Judge Victor Chavez said that, as it is, the money may be so inadequate that only candidates with working spouses will be able to afford a career on the bench. “Is that what we are going to do,” he said, “limit ourselves to judges with two-income families?
“In order to attract the best people,” he added, “you’ve got to have at least moderate salaries. . . . Even with the benefits, we’re still not at a level needed.”
Chief Justice George agreed that pay should be better statewide but said judges are public servants and should not expect to earn as much as a top-drawer private lawyer. He also dismissed as “basically flawed” the argument that Los Angeles judges have a harder job than jurists elsewhere.
“There are complex cases around the state,” George said. “You can’t justify paying judges more in one area than another because of supposed complexities of the case.”
Next door in Orange County, for example, judges are given only $3,000 in cash for extra health and benefits coverage--87% less than their colleagues in Los Angeles County. In some counties, judges are given no cash supplements at all. In Alameda County, the government pays a mere $276 to buy the judges a little extra life insurance.
Although Los Angeles County has no peer when it comes to compensation, a neighbor to the east is raising eyebrows in the judicial community.
San Bernardino County, a region mired in a fiscal crisis, gives judges cash perks totaling more than $19,500 for reasons much different from those expressed in Los Angeles.
The perks are part of what they have to do to get people to come to “this cow town,” said Presiding Judge Roberta McPeters.
A Legacy From Earlier Days
Los Angeles County’s generosity is a legacy from when counties financed almost all of the Superior Court’s budget, except salaries. Now, the state pays most of the bills, but the county is still paying the perks--at an escalating cost.
For example, the all-cash health and insurance package, which hits taxpayers hardest, is fixed at 19% of the judges’ base salary. So when the state passes out raises, the county coverage rises too. In January, when the latest pay hike takes effect, the judges will receive a base salary of $133,000 and $25,300 in health benefits. That will bring judicial pay in Los Angeles County to $164,000, including the career allowance.
The insurance benefits are intended to cover medical, dental and vision care, or to pay for vacation beyond the 21 days the judges get from the state. But that’s not where it’s going, according to a July payroll report prepared at The Times’ request by the county auditor-controller.
The report, covering 403 judges, showed that three used a small fraction of the cash for health insurance. None used it to buy extra vacation time. Life insurance and accidental death or dismemberment coverage were most popular, if not the most costly. For that coverage, the judges spent $6 to $27 a month.
And then there are the 41 judges who kept it all--excluding the $5 monthly administrative fee.
The benefits plan was created 10 years ago by the county’s former chief administrative officer, Richard B. Dixon. At the time, before the state took primary control of the courts, top judges would come before the Board of Supervisors for operating expenses. Dixon said he believed that judges deserved the same county benefits as nonunion county executives.
He said he cannot remember any controversy or discussion about duplicate benefits or double-dipping.
“It never arose, and I’m sure a discussion like that . . . would have stuck in my mind,” said Dixon, who resigned in 1992 after revelations that he spent millions remodeling his office and had inflated retirement pensions for himself and others.
Dixon said there also was no discussion about using the benefits package to attract good judges. That, he said, was the rationale for another county perk--the “professional development allowance.”
In theory, that allowance is for educational expenses. In practice, it’s take-home pay. In cost to county taxpayers, it’s $2.4 million.
Among the intended uses for the stipend are educational conferences. But many judges bill the state for expenses at these affairs, including a five-day session in Monterey earlier this year and another one, for six days in Dana Point, last August.
They also have tapped public funds to pay their $370 annual dues to the private California Judges Assn., an educational and lobbying group exclusively for judges.
Chavez, the presiding judge, argues that reimbursements for educational trips are justified when judges take classes related to a new assignment or for the benefit of the courts.
He sees no problem with judges receiving the educational allowance and still filing expense reports with the state for conferences. “I would not consider that double reimbursement,” he said.
Judges deserve both the state and county money because they are not reimbursed for other expenses, including travel between courthouses, Chavez said.
The judges also believe that they deserve the retirement accounts funded by the public.
The county matches dollar for dollar any money that judges put into two retirement accounts up to a combined total of 7% of base salary. As of July, those contributions cost the public $1.9 million a year, with the county obligated to pay a maximum of $4 million if all 428 judicial positions are filled and the judges opt for the maximum deduction.
The state, meanwhile, pays judges 75% of their salary after retirement, using funds contributed by the judge and the state.
With all these various benefit and perk funds in play, Los Angeles County judges actually could be free to triple dip.
In more than theory, they can take their unspent health coverage money--which duplicates their state benefits--and divert it to their county 401(k) account. That money, in turn, is matched dollar for dollar by more local taxes.
To some that might seem lavish. To Kris Vosburgh of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., “it’s absolutely a waste of money . . . and average taxpayers would be irate if they knew about it.”