Ballot proposal would allow some judges to stay on the bench until age 80
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A proposal on Tuesday’s ballot would raise the retirement age for some New York judges from 70 to age 80. Supporters include the state’s 68 year old chief judge, while opponents say the measure is too flawed to be approved.  

The current mandatory retirement age for State Supreme Court judges and judges on the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is age 70.  Supreme Court Judges are permitted under current law to continue serving additional two year terms, until the age of 76, if they are deemed competent and are needed in the chronically short staffed state court system.  

But Court of Appeals judges must leave the bench at age 70, even if they’ve only served a small portion of their 14 year term.

The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Jonathan Lippmann, has been lobbying hard to get the amendment passed, meeting with the bar associations and newspaper editorial boards. He recently spoke to the public television show New York Now.

“In the year 2013, this is an anachronism that makes no sense,” Lippman said.

Lippman says the law stems from 1869, when life expectancy was considerably lower.  

Judge Lippman has been criticized, though for advocating for an amendment that he would benefit from. Without an increase in the mandatory retirement age of 70, Lippman will have to leave his job as the state’s chief judge  several years before his term is up.

Vince Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor and expert on the state’s court system, says he’s known many excellent judges, appointed to the Court of Appeals by both Democratic and Republican governors, who have had to leave when they are at the “top of their game”.

“Our best judges literally are at their best when they are 70 years old, and yet we force them to retire ,” Bonventre said.  “I really think that’s crazy”.

Opponents include the reform group Citizens Union, which is advising a no vote. The group’s Dick Dadey says the amendment is uneven because it does not apply to all judges in the state, and does not address the problems of a lack of judges in the lower courts, including criminal courts and family court.

“If we want to increase the age for all judges in New York State then we should do it for all,” Dadey said. “And not just for a very small segment of them.”

Governor Cuomo has not been exactly supportive of the amendment, pointing out that the legislature wanted it, not him. Judge Lippmann, who backs the proposal,  is a child hood friend of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

“It’s not my referendum,” Cuomo said. “I understand the issue. I think there are serious questions raised by it.”

If the proposal fails, several judges would have to retire from the state’s highest court in the next few years. If the governor wins re- election in 2014, he has the potential to appoint every one of the seven judges on the court. Albany Law School’s Bonventre says that’s not necessarily a good precedent.  

“This would be an entirely Andrew Cuomo court,” said Bonventre.

He likens it to a President being able to entirely remake the nation’s highest court.

Polls find a majority of voters don’t support the idea of allowing  the judges to keep their jobs until the age of 80.  But it’s hard to measure how many people will actually vote on the amendment at all. The proposals will be on the back of the voting ballot, and the question of the judges retirement age is last, at number six.