Cuomo, Lippman divided on judges' mandatory retirement age

Judge Jonathan Lippman shown during a swearing-in ceremony Judge Jonathan Lippman shown during a swearing-in ceremony at the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany, N.Y. (Feb. 25, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

An upcoming vote on whether to raise the mandatory retirement age for hundreds of New York judges puts Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman clearly at odds.

If approved at the polls a week from Tuesday, Ballot Proposal 6 would in part change the state constitution so Court of Appeals judges could serve as late as age 80. Now they must leave at 70, as did Lippman's predecessor, Judith Kaye.

Lippman, 68, could thus have his mandatory 2015 departure date from the high court stayed for a decade. He actively supports the proposal, though the public debate so far has involved neither him nor his tenure.

On the top court, the amendment would allow any judge who reaches 70 while in office to remain for up to 10 more years to complete his appointed 14-year term. If this passes, two Republican appointees of former Gov. George Pataki would have their mandatory retirement dates pushed back -- from 2014 to 2018 in the case of Judge Robert S. Smith, and from 2016 to 2020 for Judge Eugene Piggott.

One might expect that Democrat Cuomo wouldn't want his option to fill all three seats put off that long. (Regardless, Cuomo will get to choose whether to reappoint Pataki appointee Judge Victoria Graffeo next year when her term ends).

While he's given some oddly variant public statements of his stance in recent weeks, Cuomo has made clear he dislikes Proposal 6.

The amendment would have its widest impact on state Supreme Court justices. Currently they must retire the year they turn 70, but may continue serving three additional two-year terms if certified as needed and competent. Under Proposal 6, they could get two more two-year terms.

Lippman and Gail Prudenti, his chief administrative judge, insist the measure would help keep seasoned judges, relieve case backlogs and reflect the modern reality of a longer life span, since the current retirement age was written into the state constitution in 1869.

Prominent New York City Democratic lawyer Victor Kovner has publicly attacked the amendment as an inconsistent "patchwork" measure that raises the retirement age "for the wrong judges, to the wrong ages, in the wrong courts, at the wrong time." Lippman, he says, rightly sought to raise retirement ages for judges on the Court of Claims, family court, and county, district and New York City courts -- but the legislature excluded those from the proposal.

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