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Sturegon v. County of Los Angeles et al

December 28, 2010

HAROLD P. STURGEON, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS, SUPERIOR COURT OF CALIFORNIA, COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, INTERVENOR AND RESPONDENT.



Super. Ct. No. BC351286 APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, James A. Richman, Judge. Affirmed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Benke, Acting P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

This is the second time this case has reached us on appeal. In our first opinion, Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630 (Sturgeon I), we reaffirmed the principle that judicial compensation is a state, not a county, responsibility. We found that by providing substantial employment benefits to its superior court judges, defendant County of Los Angeles (the county) violated article VI, section 19 of our Constitution, which requires that compensation for judges be prescribed by the Legislature. Thus we reversed an order granting the county's motion for summary judgment on plaintiff Harold P. Sturgeon's claim payment of the employment benefits was unlawful.

Shortly after we filed our opinion in Sturgeon I and while the Legislature was in a special session, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed legislation which addressed the constitutional defect we identified in Sturgeon I. In particular, the legislation required that all counties continue to provide sitting judges with whatever benefits the counties had provided as of July 1, 2008. The Legislature permitted the counties to terminate this obligation, but not with respect to sitting judges and only after giving the Administrative Office of the Courts and any affected judges 180 days' notice.

On remand Sturgeon asserted the legislation was invalid on three grounds. He argued the legislation was outside the scope of the Governor's proclamation calling the special session, did not adequately prescribe benefits judges are to be provided, and in any event violated equal protection principles by continuing a statewide system of unequal judicial benefits. The trial court rejected these contentions and granted the county's motion for summary judgment.

The legislation Sturgeon challenges, as enacted, implemented an interim response to the constitutional issues we addressed in Sturgeon I. As we shall explain, the legislation fell within the scope of the Governor's proclamation, adequately prescribed the benefits that must be provided to judges and did not intrude upon any judge's right to equal protection of the laws. Accordingly, we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Sturgeon I

Sturgeon commenced these proceedings in April 2006 by filing a taxpayer lawsuit against the county under the provisions of Code of Civil Procedure section 526a. Sturgeon's lawsuit challenged the county's annual payment of employment benefits to judges sitting in the county beyond the salary prescribed by the Legislature and in addition to employment benefits, including health care, disability insurance and life insurance provided to the judges by the state. In fiscal 2007 each judge in Los Angeles was eligible to receive $46,436 in benefits from the county, which amounted to approximately 27 percent of their prescribed salary and cost the county approximately $21 million. Among other claims, Sturgeon alleged the benefit payments violated article VI, section 19 of the California Constitution, which in pertinent part requires that the Legislature "prescribe compensation for judges of record." The trial court granted the county's motion for summary judgment, finding no merit in Sturgeon's claims under article VI, section 19. Sturgeon also claimed the benefits were barred by the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 (Lockyer-Isenberg) (Gov. Code, § 77200 et seq.; Stats. 1997, ch. 850, §§ 1, 46) were unlawful gifts of public funds and amounted to an unlawful waste of public funds. The trial court rejected those claims as well.

On appeal we agreed with Sturgeon's article VI, section 19 contention and reversed the order granting summary judgment. (Sturgeon I, supra, 167 Cal.App.4th at p. 657.)*fn1 We held the benefits the county provided were compensation within the meaning of the Constitution and had not been prescribed by the Legislature. (Ibid.) We noted however that while the requirement of the Constitution that the Legislature prescribe judicial compensation was important, it was not onerous and required only that the Legislature "consider the specific issue and, at a minimum, establish or reference identifiable standards" by which benefits would be provided to judges. (Ibid.)

B. Senate Bill X2 11

Our opinion in Sturgeon I was filed on October 10, 2008, and modified on November 7, 2008.*fn2 On December 1, 2008, the Governor issued a proclamation calling the Legislature into a special session. The proclamation convened the Legislature in pertinent part: "To consider and act upon legislation to address the economy, including but not limited to efforts to stimulate California's economy, create and retain jobs, and streamline the operations of state and local governments." During the special session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 11 (2009-2010 2d Ex. Sess.) (Senate Bill X2 11), which the Governor signed on February 20, 2009. Senate Bill X2 11 became effective on May 21, 2009.

Section 1 of Senate Bill X2 11 states: "(a) It is the intent of the Legislature to address the decision of the Court of Appeal in Sturgeon v. County of Los Angeles (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 630, regarding county-provided benefits for judges.

"(b) These county-provided benefits were considered by the Legislature in enacting the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, in which counties could receive a reduction in the county's maintenance of effort obligations if counties elected to provide benefits pursuant to paragraph (l) of subdivision ...


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