The State Worker

The State Worker: The man who honed California civil service laws

Loren McMaster, right, takes the oath to become a Sacramento Superior Court judge in 1999.
Loren McMaster, right, takes the oath to become a Sacramento Superior Court judge in 1999. Sacramento Bee file

Retired Judge Loren McMaster died last Thursday at age 71 after a long illness and a storied legal career.

But his impact is largely unknown outside the law and labor communities, even though his work has affected every California government employee for the last 41 years.

“Loren was always on the side of working people,” said Bruce Blanning, executive director of the state engineers’ union.

McMaster was a labor attorney for John Skelly, a 64-year-old Department of Healthcare Services doctor fired in 1972 for “intemperance, inexcusable absences and other failures.” In sum, the doctor took extended lunch breaks and disappeared from work without explanation.

Skelly’s bosses warned him verbally and in writing. Then a suspension. He was fired when an administrator saw Skelly at a bar with a drink during work hours, hair tousled, his arm around a woman.

McMaster and his client appealed to the State Personnel Board. They lost. Ditto in civil court, where McMaster argued Skelly was denied due process rights. Until then, the state’s Civil Service Act allowed government employers to discipline workers without giving them a chance to see the evidence and respond.

Eventually Skelly v. State Personnel Board went to the California Supreme Court, which agreed Skelly should have received “procedural protections” before he lost his job. Since that 1975 ruling, state and local government employees get a “Skelly hearing” to rebut alleged misbehavior before they are actually disciplined.

Any time you protect public servants from arbitrary action, it’s not a just protection for the employees, it’s a protection for the public. Otherwise, it’s all politics.

Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government

Two decades later, McMaster was again before the high court to argue that then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration was illegally contracting engineering services at Caltrans, even when it was more expensive. The civil service principles that forbade government job patronage, McMaster said, also applied to doling out government work to outside contractors, absent sound reasons.

A Supreme Court of mostly Republican gubernatorial appointees agreed with McMaster’s PECG v. Department of Transportation arguments.

Later, as a Sacramento judge, McMaster was the target of a recall effort after he ruled state domestic partners law did not violate a voter-approved 2000 declaration that marriage is limited to a man and a woman. The recall effort, like an appeal of his ruling, went nowhere.

“Loren was a brilliant legal mind,” said attorney Steve Bassoff, a friend since 1983.

What is McMaster’s legacy? An enhanced civil service? Or coddled government workers? Blanning, who is admittedly biased, said McMaster’s impact goes beyond either.

“Any time you protect public servants from arbitrary action, it’s not a just protection for the employees, it’s a protection for the public,” Blanning said. “Otherwise, it’s all politics.”

Loren McMaster surely would have agreed.

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