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The California Judges Association has been going through a rough patch. In the midst of a search for a new leader, the organization now faces financial woes. San Francisco and a number of other counties have decided that because of budget constraints, they can no longer afford to pay the their judges’ membership fees. The real eye-opener here is that some counties are still paying the fees — and that many have long done so. What possible justification could there be for using taxpayer money to fund an organization that, among other things, lobbies for higher bench pay and increased retirement benefits? It’s not the money — even if every county coughed up the $350-a-judge fee, we’re talking about no more than $700,000 a year — but the principle. Actually, there are two principles. The first is the use of taxpayer money to fund self-serving lobbying. The judges can and should present their best case for the increases in pay and retirement benefits that will keep the best of them on the bench. But they should spend their own money on that effort; taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot any part of it. Complicating matters is the other lobbying the CJA does. A somewhat stronger case can be made for public funding of the CJA’s efforts to have a voice on legislation affecting court operations. For instance, no one is in a better position to let the Legislature know what changes to fast-track rules would mean for the court’s resources. But then, the bench already does that: The Judicial Council’s governmental affairs office deploys lobbyists on just those kinds of rubber-meets-the-road matters. The CJA does other work that’s no doubt of some value to its members and maybe even the public. For example, it operates an ethics hot line, which can help keep callers out of hot water with the Commission on Judicial Performance. And at its annual convention, attendees can hear about the latest case law and courtroom management techniques. But here again, it’s a mixed mission: There are also sessions on topics like getting re-elected and getting the most bang from retirement benefits. Which brings us to the second principle: You get what you pay for. If counties stop pitching in for CJA fees, interim director (and longtime lobbyist) Michael Belote believes most judges would probably pay the relatively modest fee from their own pockets. And the CJA will be the stronger for it. Judges paying their own way will want to see a fair return on that investment. If they don’t, they’ll spend their money elsewhere; it’s simple free-market economics. To keep members happy, maybe the CJA will have to focus all its energies on pay and perks and leave the policy wonk stuff to the Judicial Council. Or maybe that nitty-gritty operational stuff is what concerns members the most. With self-funding, CJA leadership would soon find out.

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