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A labor dispute between Los Angeles County Superior Court judges and their researchers may be holding up the passage of other judicial branch legislation — including a bill to create more California judgeships, says one key legislator. The rift between the L.A. courts and a group of about 100 research attorneys and law clerks “is the reason all the judicial branch-related legislation got tied up this year,” says California state Sen. Joe Dunn, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I have been encouraging the L.A. Superior Court for the past year to get these issues together,” said Dunn, who added that it was “difficult” to push other branch-related bills “when there is this longstanding labor issue.” Organized labor did indeed this year oppose Dunn’s Senate Bill 56 — which would have created more judgeships — questioning “the priority of adding judgeships given the state’s current fiscal situation,” although no specific mention was made of the L.A. dispute. SB 56 is on hold until next year. Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, a Norwalk, Calif., Democrat who authored legislation aimed at trying to force the Los Angeles courts to resolve their labor issue, said he has heard from other lawmakers disturbed by labor problems down south. Bermudez said at least one colleague told him that if judges “are not responsible enough to handle the responsibilities of their jurisdiction, why should we give them more?” Assembly Bill 176, co-authored by Bermudez and Assemblyman Paul Koretz, D-West Hollywood, Calif., sought to force the L.A. courts to end their practice of hiring three dozen or so law clerks as temporary two-year employees. The law clerks are paid less and have fewer benefits than permanent research attorneys, who are required to have passed the bar. Other counties, including San Francisco, also hire temporary law clerks. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the Bermudez bill earlier this month, saying in his veto message that the bill “inappropriately interferes in the collective bargaining process ongoing in the Los Angeles Superior Court.” The California Judges Association and the Judicial Council also opposed AB 176. “It really raises a big concern when the Legislature tries to make a statutory fix that absolutely should be something resolved through the collective bargaining process,” said Kate Howard, who directs the Administrative Office of the Courts’ Governmental Affairs division. Damian Tyron, the union representative for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees’ Southern California district, described the disagreement as “contentious” and said the court has “done everything in its power to represent itself in such a bad-faith manner on this issue that we ultimately had to resort to legislation on this issue.” But L.A. County Superior Court’s presiding judge, William MacLaughlin, said numerous meetings with L.A. judges show wholehearted support for the time-honored tradition of hiring temporary law clerks to bring “a fresher and more vigorous approach” to legal research. “We have almost 600 bench officers,” said MacLaughlin. “I held a series of meetings throughout the county with all the judges invited. Not all of them showed up, but of those who showed up, there was never a dissenting voice.” Both MacLaughlin and Tyron acknowledge that an arbitrator last year sided with the court, agreeing it could hire law clerks for a limited term of employment. And, given Schwarzenegger’s veto, Tyron and AFSCME Local 910 President Michael Boggs acknowledge they may be running out of options. Bermudez, however, said he’s heard from at least one lawmaker interested in introducing legislation aimed at consolidating hiring power for all nonjudicial court employees with the AOC. Such a move would “strip presiding judges” of most of their responsibilities and power, said Bermudez, who added that he has not taken a position on the idea. Howard, however, said such a move is definitely not coming from court leadership. “That is a new proposal and certainly not something we have sought or asked for,” Howard said. “It certainly raises numerous concerns that we would have to look at.” Terry Friedman, an L.A. Superior Court judge and former legislator recently sworn in as CJA’s new president, said he’s not convinced that L.A.’s labor problems are having any spillover effects on the judicial branch’s legislative goals. But as a former assemblyman, he says he’s very aware of how much pull labor can have on a Democratic-controlled Legislature. “I am very respectful of the importance organized labor has in Sacramento,” said Friedman. “I also believe Sen. Dunn is one of the great allies of the judiciary and a very wise observer of the current conditions in Sacramento, so I will, on behalf of CJA, always consult with him, among others, regarding the politics of issues in which organized labor has an interest.”

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