We have all heard quite a bit ( perhaps too much ) about the referendum on the ballot to legalize casino gambling. We have heard much less about that other proposed change to the New York State constitution, which is raising the retirement age of NYS Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Judges from 70 to 80 years old. Why have we heard so much less about it? Perhaps because it’s nothing more than bald attempt to preserve the status quo for politically connected judges, at least according to the critics.

First the obvious criticism which comes to us via City Councilman Charles Barron who concludes,

“Too often it’s white males that stay there for a tremendously long time. So I think any kind of legislation that perpetuates the status quo, that keeps them in longer is not good for Democracy, is certainly not good for the black, Latino and Asian community.”

Now, the more sordid criticism, which is that this whole proposal is some kind of buddy favor between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Chief Court of Appeals Judge Jonathan Lippmann. An issue that was highlighted in this fine piece of journalism by Jesse Mckinley. Silver and Lippmann go way back as friends, and without this referendum Lippmann would have to retire in 2015 when he turns 70.  Silver Spokesman Mike Whyland dismissed that criticism as “nonsense,” arguing that the effort to extend the retirement age has been going on for years.

To tackle the question of why extending the retirement age is necessary, I interviewed Robert Danzi of the NYS Trial Lawyers Association. He said,

“The current age limitation comes from 1869. And now we are here over 150 some odd years later and the age of retirement is the same as it was in 1869 when the average life expectancy was 40.”

True enough, but it still doesn’t answer the question about diversity on the court in order to reflect the rapidly diversifying demographics of New York State. To that and a general lack of diversity in the courts, Danzi said “the numbers simply do not bear that out.”

Oh, but they do.

According to the American Judicature Society ( I know, I can’t get over the name either ) of the 385 New York State Judgeships, women make up 27% of the appointments, African Americans 14%, Latinos 25% and Asians an abysmal 1%. Do I even need to make the point that those figures don’t exactly jibe with the population as a whole?

I also posed the question about the Lippmann favor to Danzi ( I mean, why not, right?!? We were already on a roll ), and he said “Well, Have you ever met Judge Lippmann?? I didn’t really know what to say here, but I think I blurted out “yes,” even though that’s not entirely true ( and I LOVE when interview subjects answer my questions with aggressive questions of their own ), but he then went on to say,

“Judge Lippmann is a wonderful jurist and we would be benefited overall to keep him on the bench as long as possible because he is as good as they get.”

The trial Lawyers PAC, LAWPAC has given Silver more than $22,000 in campaign donations since 2000, so at least I knew I was talking to the right guy about this.

In fairness to Silver, raising the retirement age has been discussed for years. In June 1999 the Task Force on Mandatory Retirement of Judges concluded that the age should be raised. The person who appointed that task force? You guessed it…Jonathan Lippmann.

Governor Cuomo by the way, who strongly favors the casino amendment, has come out against raising the retirement age…for whatever that’s worth.