Sept. 25 2012 09:26 PM

Despite enormous service cutbacks, Superior Court maintains nearly $1 million in vehicle allowances

Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra

    Through a summer-long media blitz, San Diego County Superior Court officials warned the public about drastic, near-cataclysmic reductions in services on the horizon.

    "The cuts envisioned by our budget reduction plan will affect every judge, court employee and ultimately the litigants, court users and citizens in San Diego County," Presiding Judge Robert Trentacosta said in a June statement. "These cuts will significantly reduce or eliminate access to our court system and are devastating to those of us who have worked so hard to convince the Governor and Legislature that such cuts threaten the stability of our third branch of government."

    The California budget crisis has trickled down to the local justice level, with the San Diego County court looking to make up a $33-million shortfall in what had been a $190-million budget. The court was ordered to drain its rainy-day reserves—roughly $22 million—leaving $11 million left to slice in the coming fiscal year, with even bigger cuts predicted in the next cycles.

    As fall arrives, the court has begun shutting down outlying courtrooms, shortening hours, laying off some employees and furloughing others.

    But the Superior Court did not cut one line item: nearly $1 million per year in transportation allowances set aside for judges and executive managers.

    San Diego judges each receive $572 per month ($6,864 annually) in car stipends, while the presiding judge, assistant presiding judge and supervising judges each collect $674 per month ($8,088 annually).

    Between the 126 current judges, that's $903,427 per year in vehicle allowances. Nine administrators collected a combined $59,472 per year, bringing the figure to $962,899. Another $8,281 was reimbursed for out-of-county travel.

    The 24-year-old practice is particular to San Diego County as a carryover from when the county government paid for the courts and the benefit was tied to the Board of Supervisors' compensation package. Now, the state funds the court, and there's no mandate from Sacramento to provide these vehicle allowances.

    Of the 12 largest counties in California, only two besides San Diego provide vehicle stipends to judges. Contra Costa County Superior Court offers $250 per month to its 38 judges, two of whom have waived the benefit. San Bernardino County Superior Court's car allowance, $276.92 per two-week pay period, is being phased out by attrition; judges appointed prior to 2008 keep the perk, but judges seated after that are reimbursed at the standard IRS rate. Superior Court judges in Alameda, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Ventura counties don't receive transportation allowances.

    The IRS rate is 55.5 cents per mile of work-related travel, excluding the commute to work.

    Vehicle allowances are a controversial subject in San Diego. In 2008, in response to reports by the San Diego Union-Tribune, most San Diego City Council members turned down their car stipends. As first reported by the U-T, only one council member, Lorie Zapf, currently accepts the $9,600 perk.

    Given multiple opportunities to explain the court's side of the story, executive officer Michael Roddy was unavailable for interviews. Judge Trentacosta punted to a spokesperson, who provided figures but offered no comment on the reasoning behind the auto allowances.

    Superior Court judge salaries— $178,789 per year—are protected by the state Constitution, and the number of judges is set by the state Legislature. They can't be laid off, furloughed or have their salaries cut. The judges also control the budgeting process at the county level.

    The budget-reduction plan for the next two years, according to a Superior Court spokesperson, was developed by an ad hoc budget committee, which was then approved by the court's executive committee. Both committees are made up of judges.

    The court has shut down probate-court operations and a juvenile-dependency courtroom in Vista. The Ramona court facility was shuttered, and six criminal courtrooms and one civil courtroom were closed at the Downtown courthouse. Employees are being forced to take 24 unpaid furlough days during the next two years. The court also plans to close down civil courtrooms in East County and South County, remove court reporters from civil cases and lay off at least 60 employees.

    "At a time when we are asking all levels of government to reduce spending, any and all additional perks should be scrutinized for potential savings," Chris Cate, vice president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, wrote in an email reacting to CityBeat's research. "Taking into account total compensation, these car allowances should be the first item eliminated as a means to reduce spending by close to $1 million."

    This is one of the few occasions when the Taxpayers' Association and public-employee unions are on the same page.

    "A benefit such as a car allowance is quite a luxury, especially in these economic times and especially in the public sector in California," says Michelle Castro, California director of government relations for Service Employees International Union. So far, 27 of the 125 court reporters represented by the union are being laid off.

    "It's exacerbated by all the cuts, especially to the trial courts, and courthouse closures and layoffs of court employees," Castro says. "It almost seems excessive to continue that kind of benefit."

    Meanwhile, the legal associations that expressed outrage over the state cuts are reluctant to criticize the judges. North County Bar Association president William Kamenjarin, who wrote in an op-ed in The Coast News that the association "deplores" the closing of the Vista courtrooms, says the association wouldn't take a position regarding judicial compensation. Meanwhile, the San Diego County Bar Association offered a timid response.

    "It is clear that our Court's leadership has had to make many difficult decisions and consider many competing factors in addressing the recent budget cuts, and we are confident that the courts are being very deliberate in making decisions regarding operations and funding," bar president Marvin Mizell said in a prepared statement. "Our concern continues to be how funding can be fully restored so that our Courts can function properly."

    Cory Briggs, a public-interest lawyer frequently involved in litigation in San Diego County Superior Court, questions the amount of the judge's allowance considering the national standard is roughly 55 cents per mile.

    "I do not believe there is a problem with anyone receiving an auto allowance if it is in fact fairly compensating for the person's use of his or her private vehicle for work-related driving," Briggs says via email after receiving CityBeat's figures. "The question, of course, is whether each judge receiving the allowance is actually using his or her vehicle as much as the allowance suggests. At the current IRS reimbursement rate, the judges appear to be receiving reimbursement for driving about 1,000 miles per month for work-related matters. Perhaps some judges do that, but I have a hard time believing that every judge is driving an average of 12,000 miles per year for work."

    Several other attorneys contacted by CityBeat did not want to risk commenting in the press. Attorney Lance Rogers says many lawyers, including him, are reluctant to criticize judges who might later preside over their cases. Nevertheless, he was willing to give what he described as his "vanilla" response.

    "During a time of significant, severe budget cutbacks, it would seem to me that this allowance would be something worth looking at, especially in light of the court closures and the work furloughs and terminations of staff members," Rogers says. "Quite frankly, the judges have been very vocal and active about all of the steps they've taken to try and preserve the status quo of the judicial system, and I'm honestly very surprised they haven't taken a look at this."

    Two new judges eligible for the allowance were elected in June: Deputy District Attorney David Berry and Gary Kreep, a notorious "Birther" who's challenged in court Barack Obama's eligibility to be president and who runs the United States Justice Foundation, an organization currently on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of known anti-Muslim hate groups. One judicial election remains on the November ballot, a race that pits Jim Miller, a private attorney endorsed by the Republican Party and various Tea Party groups, against veteran prosecutor Robert Amador.

    "If it's just, you get in your car and you drive to the courthouse and maybe go to lunch with a buddy, then back to the courthouse and go home—that's ridiculous," Miller says. "I think if we're laying off [employees] and… making people drive from Oceanside to downtown San Diego because we can't keep courthouses open, I think people have to think about [the allowance]. It doesn't sound appropriate."

    Amador wasn't as quick to attack the perk.

    "My campaign is about my experience to serve as a judge, not salary and benefits," Amador writes via email. "When I am elected I will review the entire salary and benefits package and make an informed decision at that time."

    Note: Contra Costa County Superior Court responded after our print deadline. The online version has been updated accordingly. 

    Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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