By Ed Mendel
Monday, October 15, 2012

The public employees most lightly touched by a pension reform signed by Gov. Brown last month are the judges, whose court rulings on public pensions can affect their own pensions and retirement income.

Judges have the biggest pension formula and make one of the smallest pension contributions. But unlike others covered by the reform, current judges are not expected to pay half the normal pension cost, and new judges do not get a lower pension.

The one way judges are affected by the reform bill: New judges will be expected to contribute half the normal cost of their pensions. That could be about 15 percent of pay, well above the 8 percent that current judges will continue to pay.

Did the framers of the reform bill, AB 340, which was negotiated in private by the Brown administration and legislative leaders, go easy on the judges to reduce the risk of lawsuits in which judges have a personal stake?

“There is no linkage either implicit or explicit of the kind you are describing,” said H.D. Palmer of the governor’s finance department.

Instead, judges are said to receive special pension treatment because they tend to begin work as judges later in life and retire at an older age than most government employees.

The judicial conflict of interest on pensions drew national attention in July when the New Jersey state Supreme Court ruled that judges were exempt from a broad pension reform, a victory for the judges who filed the suit.

In a 3-to-2 decision, the court said paying more for pensions and retiree health care violated a New Jersey constitution ban on “diminishing the salaries” of judges, a protection against retaliation by legislators and executives when laws are struck down.

A Judgepedia website report in April on judicial pensions becoming an issue in several states said “it is clear judges hearing the cases have an undeniable conflict of interest, since any decision they make will also affect their own pensions.”

The website said the New Jersey chief justice, Stuart Rabner, recused himself from the pension lawsuit. But he left the panel because he had lobbied for the reform bill, not because the ruling might affect his own pension.

In a class-action lawsuit to overturn an Illinois law requiring retirees to begin paying for their health care, a retired appellate judge, Gordon Maag, was made the lead plaintiff last July, a move critics said is an attempt to influence his former colleagues.

As Orange County unsuccessfully tried to overturn a retroactive pension increase for deputy sheriffs, arguing violations of the debt limit and a ban on extra pay for work already performed, an attorney for the deputies made a brief argument last year.

“Miriam A. Vogel, a retired Court of Appeal justice, clearly told her former colleagues that the court’s decision would affect every pension in the state of California: “[I]t would affect yours, it would affect mine,” Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach wrote in the Orange County Register last year.

Judges not only can have a conflict of interest when ruling on pensions, but another potential reason to leave them out of reforms is that they also are lawyers, knowledgeable about the inner workings of the law and possibly litigious.

Continuing an old battle, a suit filed last March in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of about 125 active and retired judges and their spouses, heirs and trusts seeks, among other things, payment for annual inflation adjustments from1970 to 1976.

The suit contends that the Judges Retirement System administered by the California Public Employees Retirement System apparently is prolonging the legal battle in the mistaken belief that its financial obligation ends with the death of the petitioner.

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