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California Supreme Court upholds unpaid furloughs for state employees, but says governor does not have unilateral authority in such cases

October 4, 2010 | 12:29 pm

The California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld last year's unpaid furloughs for more than 200,000 state employees, ruling that state legislators approved the plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The high court’s ruling was the first to address disputes between the governor and state workers over orders that cut the pay of the employees. More than 30 lawsuits have been filed challenging the unpaid furloughs, and lower court rulings have been mixed.

Lawyers for state employees argued that only the Legislature could cut employee pay, while the governor insisted he had unilateral authority in such cases.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the court said a governor does not have unilateral authority to furlough workers.

However, the court said the furlough order implemented in 2009 was valid because legislators approved a budget measure that reflected the governor’s order. The measure reduced employee spending by the exact amount the state expected to save when it ordered employees to take two days off a month without pay.

The legislative action "validated the Governor’s furlough program here at issue," the court said.

Schwarzenegger issued the following statement:

"As Governor, I have had to make very difficult decisions in response to the world-wide economic collapse, including furloughs for state workers and line-item vetoes to balance our budget. These decisions were absolutely necessary to keep our state functioning. Today’s ruling upholds the state’s actions to protect taxpayers and ensure we live within our means, just like every California family and business must do."

But Ann Giese, an attorney for SEIU Local 1000 who argued the case before the court, said she was also pleased with the ruling, saying that "in all my years, I’ve never gotten a loss that felt so good."

"The governor does not have the authority that he thought he had. ... The only thing that saved him in this case is the fact that the Legislature scored the savings from the furloughs he imposed, thereby ratifying them."

"I think it’s a real shot in the arm to the union side to know that they control their destiny through collective bargaining," she said.

The court’s ruling can be downloaded here: PECG vs Schwarzenegger - 100410.

In another decision, the court unanimously upheld Schwarzenegger's 2009 vetoes of spending for social service programs. Democratic legislators had challenged the nearly $500 million that the governor cut from health, battered-women and other programs.

-- Maura Dolan and Shane Goldmacher