“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.”
-- Attorney Sterling Norris
Judicial Watch

Illegal Payments Sparks Law to Immunize Judges from Criminal Liability
May 15, 2009

Los Angeles, CA — While counties, cities and the entire state are on the brink of financial collapse, California's 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.


Judges were apparently worried about being prosecuted for criminal acts and liability for taking the unearned payments. At the urging of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the California Judicial Council quietly authored a provision that was slipped into State Budget legislation SBX2 11 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 whom you ask, the payments are referred to as "unearned benefits" or "judicial benefits".


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? He responded: "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 prominent, former 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 attempting to disqualify Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe from sitting in a case that involved the County of Los Angeles. According to Fine, Yaffe failed to disclose to the parties in the case of Marina Strand Colony II Homeowners Association vs. County of Los Angeles that he had been receiving $46,000 from the County for years, on top of his State salary. Referring to Fine's incarceration, Yaffe recently defended the practice of "coercive confinement" in response to Fine's Writ of Habeas Corpus for Immediate Release, filed in Federal Court on March 29, 2009.


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."

Sterling Norris Sterling Norris
Sterling "Ernie" Norris is an attorney for Judicial Watch, a conservative, Washington, D.C.-based watchdog organization whose stated mission is to promote transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.  Norris is a former L.A. Deputy District Attorney and is the attorney who represented the plaintiff in Sturgeon vs. County of Los Angeles.

(Photo courtesy of Full Disclosure Network)



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 accepted unearned money from other than their employer disqualify them from those higher appointments? In his complaint and request for investigation 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 now have been granted criminal immunity.


The California Constitution (Sec. 17, 19, 20) states that judges may not receive money from parties other than their employer. The State of California, through its Legislature, has the sole responsibility for setting compensation and retirement benefits. On page 4 of Fine's 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, Fine expressed concern about the possible U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Justice Moreno, who had not recused himself from two critical cases that involved SBX2 11 and the controversial retroactive criminal immunity issue. First, Moreno would not recuse himself in the disbarment case of Fine, who had raised the issue of illegal payments to judges, and second, with the Writ of Habeas Corpus, where Fine was seeking immediate release from L.A. County Jail for contempt of Court. Fine maintains that in both instances, Justice Moreno had a personal conflict. In comparison, two other Federal judges (Judges George Wu and Dale Fischer) recused themselves from Fine's Writ of Habeas Corpus because they had been Superior Court judges in Los Angeles and had received illegal payments from the County and retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution.


The on-going controversy over the state's fiscal crisis, judicial benefits and appointments will play out in yet another court hearing on July 2, 2009, when San Francisco Appellate Court Justice James A. Richman will preside in L.A. Superior Court to rule on Judicial Watch's 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 the constitutionality of SBX2 11, which granted judges retroactive immunity for liability and criminal acts without public discussion or debate.


The Judical Watch organization faces formidable opposition from the County of Los Angeles and its private law firm, Jones-Day, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles, which retained Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has "Intervenor" status in the case. The matter of "unearned benefits" going to the judges raises the issue of who will pay the big law firms? Will it be the taxpayers who pay, or the judges who personally benefitted from the illegal payments? No matter who wins and who pays, this legal battle is going to be costly.


Leslie Dutton, Host of Full Disclosure, contacted Judge Mary Wiss, President of the California Judges Association, for an interview for this series 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.

Copyright 2009, Full Disclosure Network

Adapted from: "Fiscal Crisis: Illegal Payments Create Law For Judicial Criminal & Liability Immunity: Nominees For U S Supreme Court To Be Impacted?" Full Disclosure Network, May 15, 2009, http://www.fulldisclosure.net/news/, accessed 05/22/09.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

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