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OPINION: Raise the judges' retirement age now

Brooklyn Federal courthouse. Wikipedia photo

From the Albany Times Union

Most judges in New York must retire at age 70, although they can get extensions allowing them to serve to 76. The mandatory retirement age was set in 1869 — when an American child had a life expectancy at birth of about 40. Now it's close to 80.

New York voters have an opportunity to change this antiquated rule this year, with a constitutional amendment that is long overdue.

It's a smart change not only because time, diet, lifestyles, and advances in medicine have redefined our notion of old age. It's also a smart move for New York's judicial system.

It's the state constitution that forces the 70-year-old retirement age. It allows a judge to get up to three two-year extensions, contingent on certification that their services are needed and that they are physically and mentally capable of doing the job.

Proposal 6 on the Nov. 5 ballot would allow state Supreme Court justices to obtain up to five additional two-year terms. Judges on the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, could stay up to 10 years past the age of 70 in order to complete their terms, which run 14 years.

At the Supreme Court level, this could reduce a growing burden. According to the state Office of Court Administration, caseloads have increased 50 percent in the last 20 years while judicial ranks have grown only eightt percent. Forcing judges to retire while they are still willing and able to work exacerbates the shortage.

Raising the age would also encourage more people to think about running for judicial office later in life, when they can bring to the bench the experience and, we would hope, wisdom that the public expects on those who sit in judgment of us. Practically speaking, a senior lawyer's finances are more likely to allow him or her to consider leaving private practice for a public service job whose pay, while generous, is still well below what an attorney can earn privately.

As for the ability to do the work, we take note of a recent analysis of judicial productivity by Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School. Bonventre's study (done primarily to compare the U.S. Supreme Court with the Court of Appeals), found that the three oldest judges on the Court of Appeals led the court in written opinions. Yet all three would be forced to retire before their terms are up, as was the previous chief judge, Judith Kaye.

Understandably, some voters might wonder about the change benefiting particular judges, among them Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, 69, who is only four years into his term. It's worth noting that the original legislation put through by the court system under Lippman didn't cover the Court of Appeals; that provision was added by the Legislature.

Ultimately, the question before voters is whether this is a good move for New York's justice system, not one judge's or another's career. Clearly, it is. New York should end the practice of putting seasoned, capable judges out to pasture.

 

October 17, 2013 - 9:00am


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