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Attorney General looks into judges' benefits

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The California Attorney General will rule on the legality of judges voting for benefits for themselves using state court funds without approval from the Legislature.

On May 18, Victoria Hensely, director of the Commission on Judicial Performance, sent a confidential letter to Attorney General Kamala Harris raising questions about whether the state’s judges have improperly awarded themselves benefits over the past decade, and whether the commission has the ability to do anything about it.

In the letter, which has since been made public, Hensely is highly critical of judges’ ability to give themselves supplemental benefits. She asks whether a new state law protects judges from disciplinary action over the benefits.

In San Luis Obispo County, the 12 current judges, as a group, receive nearly $235,000 in perks, such as $101,664 for a cafeteria plan, $46,200 for an educational allowance, and $72,000 for a car allowance—even though judges aren’t required to drive as part of their official duties, according to records provided by San Luis Obispo Superior Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly.

In 1998, the Trial Court Funding Act moved control of court spending from county boards of supervisors to judges in an attempt to reform the court budget. Since then, judges have been able to vote for additional benefits for themselves with little to no oversight.

The Commission on Judicial Performance is an independent state agency that investigates complaints about judges in cases of alleged misconduct or wrongdoing.

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Kamala Harris confirmed the office is looking into the matter, but wouldn’t disclose any additional information.

A spokesperson for the California Judges Association didn’t return New Times requests for comment before press time.

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