The State Worker

The State Worker: Judges lose pension-padding lawsuit

So. Now we know. The first day of work that counts toward a CalPERS pension is … your first day of work.

And for this insight we needed a lawsuit?

Six judges thought so. They sued CalPERS and the state Judicial Council last year, claiming their pension benefits were shortchanged because they were assigned the wrong starting date.

Their San Francisco Superior Court complaint said they were illegally shoved into a downgraded retirement plan in keeping with a law that, among other things, requires employees who join a public pension fund on or after Jan. 1, 2013, to pay more toward their pensions.

Superior Court Judges Louie Brooks Anderholt (Imperial County), Tara Flanagan (Alameda), Jennifer Giuliani (Kings), Gary Kreep (San Diego), Matthew McGlynn (Tehama) and Benjamin Wirtschafter (Yuba) were all elected in 2012. Some took their oaths the same year.

All started their new jobs on Jan. 7, 2013, seven days into the new pension law.

(Side note: California voters nixed pensions for state lawmakers and constitutional officers elected for the first time in 1990 and beyond. Judges can be appointed or elected to the bench, but they still qualify for CalPERS benefits.)

For more than a year, the six judges were enrolled in the CalPERS plan with the lower contribution rate, court records show.

Meanwhile, lawmakers passed a tweak to the pension law that, CalPERS said, put the six judges retroactively into the second-tier pension program. That hiked their monthly contributions and added more than a year of back payments for what they were undercharged.

So what does that mean?

A judge in the “classic” plan, earning per $189,041 per year, kicks $1,260.27 each month to CalPERS. It’s nearly double that, $2,402.40 per month, for a judge in the newer program.

The six judges say that they became CalPERS members “upon their election to judicial office” in 2012, according to the complaint filed by their Oakland-based attorney, Teague Paterson.

Therefore, the 2013-and-beyond pension formula didn’t apply to them and CalPERS should never have come after them for more money.

As sometimes-windy court decisions go, Judge Ernest Goldsmith’s 400-word order last week was the legal equivalent of a Post-it note.

His slam-dunk line: “(The) judges’ statutory entitlement to pension benefits … began upon the beginning of their employment, not the date of their election.”

Paterson said in a Tuesday email that the lawsuit isn’t merely about money.

“This case raises important but unaddressed constitutional issues concerning the treatment of elected judges by the legislative branch and the rights that accrue to judges upon their election by the people, which the trial court appears to have misunderstood,” Paterson said.

The judges intend to fight on.

“When the Court of Appeal turns its attention to our case,” Paterson said, “we are optimistic that our position will be credited.”

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