The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

May 21, 2010
From the notebook: What the Supreme Court's furlough review decision means

As we've reported in today's Bee, the state Supreme Court is going to review CASE v. Schwarzenegger, the lawsuit that successfully argued furloughing legal staff at State Compensation Insurance Fund violated California insurance code. California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment also won the governor's subsequent appeal of the lower court decision, making it the only furlough lawsuit so far with an appellate court ruling.

The State Worker has fielded dozens of calls and e-mails from readers with questions about the court's action. Here are some answers:

Now that the court has decided to take a look at this case, what happens next?

The court's order, which you can view here, set a "briefing schedule" that lays out deadlines for CASE lawyers and Schwarzenegger's attorneys to file their arguments and rebuttals. The last date for filing is July 9.

That's a pretty quick schedule, McGeorge Law School professor Athena Roussos said, but given the "time is of the essense, it's not unusual."

It's likely that the court will set a date for hearing oral arguments fairly soon after receiving the last batch of filings, perhaps a few weeks or a month. After hearing oral arguments, then the justices will issue a decision. That could take several weeks or months. The court doesn't have a ruling deadline.

Is this good or bad for state workers?

Clearly, the governor's side has reason to be thrilled. The administration didn't appeal CASE v. Schwarzenegger by the deadline to do so, but it has still managed to get the case before the court. And this after the state Supreme Court recently rejected the governor's request that it consolidate seven key cases and consider them.

But of all the furlough lawsuits in the courts, this one appears to be one of the unions' strongest. So if labor could pick a case for the Big Time, this is probably one of two or three that they'd choose.

CASE v. Schwarzenegger affected about 500 state workers at State Compensation Insurance Fund. Will how the court rules on that case impact other furlough cases affecting everyone else?

The court's Thursday order included a qualifier-laden sentence that leaves open the possibility that this could become a case that ultimately affects other furlough lawsuits, perhaps all of them:

Review in this case may be undertaken in conjunction with possible consideration of similar issues in cases that are pending in the courts of appeal.

"I don't know how to read that other than, 'We may review other cases,'" CASE attorney Pat Whalen told us late Thursday afternoon.

This seems fishy to me. Is the fix in? Is the Supreme Court going to rule in favor of Schwarzenegger and it's just going through the motions now?

The circumstances surrounding the court's decision to take up the case on its own motion -- which means it used its authority to look at cases even without a formal appeal to do so -- were decidedly unusual. Click this link for how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attorney asked the court to extend the time it had to consider reviewing CASE v. Schwarzenegger. The day it received the letter, the court extended the time it had to consider taking up the case on its own motion. That led to Thursday's order.

"But it may be that the court just had more time to think about it and decided this is a good idea," Roussos said. "They probably want to explore whether there are issues in this case that are common to all the furlough cases."

Regardless, the court's unusual order, coming after what appeared to be prodding by the administration, leaves the court open to charges that it is acting politically. If it ultimately rules with the governor, those criticisms will undoubtedly intensify.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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