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SACRAMENTO � When California started footing most of the bills for trial courts in 1997, judges from Alpine to Los Angeles � and every county in between � essentially became long-distance colleagues, with identical salaries set by the Legislature and state-paid benefits including health care, retirement plans and regular trips to the dentist. But a decade after California shifted court funding from counties to the state, trial court judges are worlds apart when it comes to job-related perks. Los Angeles County, for instance, offers 429 superior court judges a menu of health and disability benefits, a $592-a-month “professional allowance,” and 401(k) and deferred compensation plans with dollar-for-dollar county matches. Judges who decline the county’s health care entrees � perhaps to enroll in one of three plans the state offers to all judges � can pocket the tax-free cash equivalent as long as they buy catastrophic health coverage. The generous package cost Los Angeles County $21 million last fiscal year, an average of $49,326 per judge. By comparison, tiny Alpine County’s two judges receive a single perk for doling out justice in their rural Sierra courthouse: a designated parking area � at least until an errant driver took out the “reserved” sign in the lot a couple of weeks ago. Los Angeles is no Alpine County. Judges in the state’s largest trial court system handled 2.6 million cases in 2005 at 52 sites. And the cost of living in Los Angeles � recently ranked among the 50 most expensive cities in the world � is incomparable. But judges in other urban counties can only look at their peers in Los Angeles, and a handful of other generous counties, with envy. San Francisco and Santa Clara counties offer judges limited health care coverage but not the professional stipends, retirement help or car allowances of other jurisdictions. Presiding Judge David Ballati of the San Francisco Superior Court wasn’t familiar with the specific benefits offered by other counties but said compensation “is one of those issues that continue to surface and resurface among judges here.” “When you figure what it costs to live and work in San Francisco, [a judge] working in another county probably has more disposable income at the end of the month,” Ballati said. “People in San Francisco don’t go into the judiciary as a means of enhancing their salaries.” The issue of disparity among county-provided benefits has dogged the state for more than a decade. It’s a vestige of the days when counties funded the courts’ budgets and often provided judges with the same perks they offered to county executives. Since the state starting footing most of the courts’ bills, however, locally provided benefits have been the target of labor unions’ anger, grand jury criticism and at least two failed lawsuits. Now, Chief Justice Ronald George has announced that it’s time to do something about it. In December, the Judicial Council adopted a list (.pdf) of six legislative goals for this year that included addressing judges’ pay disparity. The chief justice plans a politically savvy tack: He wants legislative approval to sweeten the state-provided perks of judges in counties that offer few or no benefits � without having to offer those same, as-yet-undetermined perks to judges in counties like Los Angeles that already provide a rich menu of options to go along with annual pay of $171,648. “We don’t want to take benefits away from anyone, but we would like to increase benefits for some judges,” George said. “It’s the rising tide lifts all boats approach.”
Some counties are pulling out of the local benefit business: San Bernardino: Will start phasing out its benefits package for judges next year. All judges elected or appointed before Jan. 1, 2008, are eligible for benefits totaling approximately $19,700 each for a total annual cost of more than $1.2 million. Riverside: Began phasing out local judicial benefits in 2003. Capped annual health, dental and vision benefit costs then to $600,000 among 47 judges and agreed not to cover new judges. Reduces benefit cap by $12,766 each time a covered judge leaves. Fresno: In 1997, the county agreed to offer health and life insurance only for judges on the bench at that time. Cost in the 2006-07 fiscal year: $14,600. SOURCE: Counties

It’s a goal fraught with potential trouble for judiciary leaders, however. George has already hit up a wary Legislature for better retirement benefits for newer judges as well as a second round of 50 new judgeships � two initiatives with multimillion-dollar price tags. It’s also unclear whether judges in generous counties will accept being excluded from added state benefits � and keep any complaints under wraps so they can present a unified lobby for improved pensions and new judgeships. But George said he’s confident the judiciary can seek a legislative fix without an internal fight � and without a large bill. “The beauty of this is, much of this we might be able to do within our judicial branch budget,” the chief justice said. “Some of this involves getting authority, not asking for money.” Possible solutions might include increasing access to disability benefits, which may be cheap enough to be funded through existing appropriations, George said. Through Wednesday, though, no bills had been introduced that address county-provided benefits to judges. ONE SENTENCE, MANY MEANINGS Today’s benefits disparity has its roots in California’s budget troubles in the mid-1990s. As a struggling economy sank tax revenues, counties foundered trying to fund basic government services, including court operations. Twice the Legislature had to appropriate emergency funding to keep the doors to some courthouses open. Those economic pressures led the state to take on more responsibilities and costs for public services. Throughout the 1990s, then-state Sens. Bill Lockyer and Phillip Isenberg moved to unify the municipal and superior courthouses while shifting the bulk of the courts’ budget to state control.

Some California counties provide superior court judges additional benefits beyond what’s provided by the state. A few of the more generous offerings: Los Angeles

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