Increase in judicial retirement age gains support

October 17, 2013 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. From Brooklyn Law School
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On Nov. 5, New York voters will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution raising the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 80.

Currently, state judges appointed to the bench must retire at the age of 70. Elected judges, on the other hand, are allowed to remain through the age of 76, so long as they are mentally competent and physically able to serve. The proposed constitutional amendment, Proposal 6, will essentially allow appointed and elected judges to remain on the bench until the age of 80.   

It is being argued throughout the legal community that an increase to the judicial retirement age will benefit the judicial system in allowing for swifter and more competent resolution of cases. If judges, for example, are forced to retire at 70, cases that are before them prior to retirement are held over until another judge is assigned to the case. The new judge then has to familiarize him/herself with the cases; often causing unavoidable delay in the trial and settlement court calendar.

The New York City Bar Association (NYCBA) noted that the proposal to raise the judicial retirement age “would make available a pool of experienced and productive judges to handle ever-increasing caseloads throughout New York State.”  

Brooklyn is particularly vulnerable to the rise in case filings. A December 2012 report distributed by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) further bolsters this presumption — with more than 54,000 pending civil cases in 2012, Brooklyn’s civil term holds the largest caseload in the state.  

“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,” Administrative Judge for Civil Matters, 2nd Department, Lawrence Knipel explained to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“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 eight percent. Forcing judges to retire while they are still willing and able to work exacerbates the shortage. Also, taxpayers save paying pensions to judges who retire later in life,” Knipel continued.

In support of the judges in its home borough, the Brooklyn Bar Association Board of Trustees adopted a resolution on Oct. 9, supporting “[Proposal] 6, as it appears on the ballot, in the Nov. 5, 2013 general election.”

Under the proposed amendment, although judges will be allowed to remain on the bench until the age of 80, no judge can be appointed or reappointed to the Court of Appeals after the age of 70. Further, the current proposed amendment only applies to Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices. Lower trial courts, including Family Court, Civil Court, Criminal Court and Surrogates’ Court, will still have to adhere to the current retirement rules.

According to the NYCBA, the OCA estimates that up to 40 judges who would otherwise retire may have the opportunity to remain on the bench over the next four years if the amendment passes.  “By ensuring that experienced, productive judges continue to serve, the amendment provides the clearest path to increase judicial capacity in the foreseeable future,” the NYCBA said in a released statement.

It is not only the matter of increasing judicial capacity that the legal community is focused on. The aging process and strides taken in science and medicine in the past century have allowed individuals to remain physically active and mentally competent past the age of 70.

“It’s time to update a 144-year-old mandatory retirement standard for judges,” said Knipel. “Most judges in New York must retire at age 70. 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. It’s a smart change not only because time, diet, lifestyles and advances in medicine have redefined. It’s also a smart move for New York’s judicial system.”

New York is not the only state looking to change its view on judicial retirement age. The Pennsylvania State Senate passed a Pennsylvania House-sponsored bill to raise the state’s judicial retirement age from 70-75.   “[The] Commonwealth and its citizens will benefit from the knowledge, experience, and temperament of seasoned jurists,” said the bill’s sponsor, Pennsylvania State Rep. Kate Harper.

Pennsylvania’s efforts will also be for the voters to decide.

“New York voters have an opportunity to change this antiquated rule this year, with a constitutional amendment that is long overdue,” Knipel said. “Clearly, passage of Proposition 6 is a win for all.”

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