Los Angeles, CA While counties, cities and the entire state are on the brink of financial collapse all California Superior Court Judges are fighting hard, in court and in the State Legislature, to keep the illegal payments made to them by county governments. The Judicial Watch organization successfully challenged those payments made to Judges in L A County, where over the past decade it has been estimated that L.A. Judges have received up to $300 million dollars. A Fourth District Appellate Court decision in October 2008 (Sturgeon vs County of Los Angeles) held those payments to the Judges were indeed unlawful. This action prompted the Judges to fight back.
RETROACTIVE IMMUNITY FROM PROSECUTION
Judges were apparently worried about being prosecuted for criminal acts and liability for taking the unearned money. At the urging of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the California Judicial Council quietly authored a provision that was slipped into the State Budget legislation SBX 211, without public debate or awareness. This provision granted retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution to all California Judges and County officials who received or made those illegal payments of public money. Depending on who you talk to the payments are referred to as “unearned benefits” or “Judicial Benefits”.
NON DISCLOSURE FOR JUDGES?
Full Disclosure Network interviewed Judicial Watch attorney Sterling Norris in April 2009 as part of an on going “special series” entitled Judicial Benefits and Court Corruption. We asked Norris what motivated the California Judicial Council to change the law giving retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution to the Judges and the Counties? His response was:
“they would not have sponsored the legislation unless they really felt the Judges needed immunity from criminal prosecution and liability”.
Ironically, Richard I. Fine, a former prominent anti-trust attorney is still sitting in the Los Angeles County Central Men’s Jail, in isolation, for more than 70 days. He was held in contempt of court, after he attempted to disqualify Superior Court Judge David Yaffe from sitting on a case that involved the County of Los Angeles. According to Fine , Yaffe failed to disclose to the parties in the case (Marina Strand Colony II Homeowners Association vs County of Los Angeles) that he had been receiving $46,000, on top of his State salary, from the County for years. Yaffe recently defended the practice of “coercive confinement” in contempt cases in response to a Writ of Habeas Corpus for Immediate Release filed by Fine in the Federal Court on March 29, 2009.
QUOTES ON NON-DISCLOSURE & PROSECUTION
Sterling Norris of Judicial Watch had these comments regarding unearned payments to Judges and their failure to disclose.
“There is no question that the judges should have disclosed they were receiving $46,000 from the County of L.A. , there is no way the judiciary, ethically, could get around it….””
“$46,000 each year is not a small amount, many people don’t make that much all year and this, from the County, is on top their $200,000 State salary. In California they are the highest paid court judges in the nation”.
“If (the Judges) are on the up and up, you go get a declaratory judgment (in court) saying, in spite of court consolidation, we are entitled to the money”
“We have never seen people excused from liability retroactively”
“There is a criminal doctrine of law that if you received money you are not entitled to, and you keep it, that is considered theft”
IMPACT ON JUDICIAL APPOINTMENTS?
Without immunity for criminal acts, a complicating factor associated with the illegal payments to Judges, is that a number of Los Angeles Superior Court Judges have been appointed to higher courts during the past two decades. They now sit on the Supreme Court and the Appellate Court. The question is, does the fact they have accepted unearned money from other than their employer disqualify them from higher appointments? In his request for investigation and complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice Richard I. Fine points to both Appellate and Supreme Court Justices who have received illegal payments from the County and who have been granted criminal immunity.
JUDICIAL ETHICS AND SUPREME COURT JUSTICE CARLOS R. MORENO
The California Constitution (Sec. 17, 19, 20) states that Judges may not receive money from other parties than their employer, the State of California, and the Legislature has the sole responsibility for setting compensation and retirement benefits. On page 4 of the Fine request for investigation he names California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, who has been mentioned as a possible nominee to the U. S. Supreme Court by President Obama.
In a telephone interview on Friday, May 15, 2009 from his jail cell, Mr. Fine expressed concern about the possible U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Justice Moreno because he had not recused himself from two critical cases involving the SBX2 11 and the controversial retroactive criminal immunity issue. First, by not recusing himself in the disbarment case of Fine who had raised the illegal payments to Judges and second, on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, where Fine was seeking immediate release from L.A. County Jail for contempt of Court. In both instances Fine maintains that Justice Moreno had a personal conflict and that two Federal Judges (George Wu and Dale Fischer) recused themselves from the Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Richard Fine as they had been Superior Court Judges in Los Angeles and had received illegal payments from the County and retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution.
JULY 2nd COURT HEARING IN L.A.
The on-going controversy over the State’s fiscal crisis, Judicial benefits and appointments is playing out in yet another court hearing on July 2, 2009 when San Francisco Appellate Court Justice James A. Richman will preside in an L A Superior Court to rule on the Judicial Watch motion for injunctive relief, to prohibit the county from making further illegal payments to the Judges. At that time Sterling Norris will have an opportunity to raise the issue of Constitutionality of SBX2 11 granting Judges retroactive immunity for liability and criminal acts without public discussion or debate.
FISCAL CRISIS & WHO PAYS THE BIG LAW FIRMS ?
The Judicial Watch organization, has been faced with formidable opposition from County of Los Angeles and their private law firm Jones-Day and the Superior Court of Los Angeles who retained Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who successfully obtained “Intervenor” status in the case. The “unearned benefits” going to the Judges, not to the public, raises the issue who will pay the big law firms? Will it be the taxpayers who pay or the Judges who personally benefit from the illegal payments? No matter who wins and who pays, this legal battle is going to cost a lot of money.
JUDGES ASSN. DECLINE INTERVIEW
The Full Disclosure® Host Leslie Dutton contacted Judge Mary Wiss, president of the California Judges Association for an interview for this two-part interview with Sterling Norris, Judge Wiss referred us to their lobbyist, Mr. Mike Beliote, who declined an interview saying “the Judges have decided not to be interviewed on this subject” The Full Disclosure series is to be released to 40 cable systems and on the Internet in June 2009. This is part three and four of the on-going series.