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No consensus on amendment to raise judge retirement age to 80

A proposal on the November ballot to allow some state judges to serve until they are 80 years old is not drawing a lot of support, and one court expert says that’s a shame.

The last of six proposals asks whether some judges in the state should be allowed to keep their jobs until the age of 80. The current mandatory retirement age for New York 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 it’s demonstrated that they are needed on the bench. But Court of Appeals judges have to leave at age 70, sometimes long before their 14 year terms expire.

Vince Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor and expert on the state’s court system, calls the current mandatory retirement age moronic. He says judges with lots of experience are better.

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

Most judges in New York agree with Bonventre. But some are against the proposal, including the reform group Citizens Union, which is advising a no vote. The group’s Dick Dadey says the amendment is poorly structured, and is unequal because it does not apply to all judges in the state.

“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.”

Dadey says the legislation is the result of a legislative compromise. He says his group is not against judges older than 70 keeping their jobs. Citizens Union says it would be better to go to the drawing board, and propose a more comprehensive amendment that also addresses the problem of too few judges in the overburdened lower courts, including family court.

Cuomo, who has said in the past that he does not support the amendment to allow some judges to stay on the bench until age 80, more recently said he hasn’t taken a position.

“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. Cuomo would get to appoint their replacements. If the governor wins reelection in 2014, he has the potential to appoint every one of the seven judges on the court. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.