Court of Appeals October Session: Arguments of Interest for October 11, 2017

The Court of Appeals returns for its second day of argument in the October session on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, with three cases scheduled for argument (the Court’s case summaries can be found here).

First up, the Court will hear arguments about whether a driver’s nervousness, repeated looks toward the back seat, and refusal to follow police officers’ directions were enough to create a perceptible risk to the officers’ safety, and justify a search of the car. Next, the Court will face a First Amendment right to protest case. Particularly, the Court is asked to decide whether an order of protection was properly issued to protect an Air National Guard base from protestors objecting to a drone unit, and whether the “stay away” order was unconstitutionally vague. Finally, the Court will hear arguments from the State’s judges that the diminishment of the State’s contribution to the cost of their health insurance violated the State Constitution.

No. 67 Bransten v State of New York

New York’s judges aren’t afraid to use the courts to vindicate their own rights. In May, the Court rejected a challenge by recertified judges to an OCA rule that prohibits them from receiving a pension while still sitting on the bench. That wasn’t the judges’ only pending case, however. A number of New York’s active and retired judges also brought an action to enjoin the State from reducing its contribution to their health insurance premiums. The State was looking to cut costs during bare financial times. But, the State’s judges aren’t normal employees whose compensation can be cut to save money. In fact, the compensation of New York’s judges is specifically protected in the New York Constitution, which provides that “[t]he compensation of a judge … or of a retired judge … shall be established by law and shall not be diminished during the term of office for which he or she was elected or appointed.” So, the Judges argued, because they had to pay a higher portion of the health insurance premiums, the reduction in their total take home compensation violated the Constitution.

Supreme Court denied the State’s motion to dismiss, accepting the Judges’ position that the higher insurance costs resulted in an unconstitutional diminution of their compensation.

The Appellate Division, First Department affirmed. It too held that the State’s imposition of increased insurance costs for the Judges, who cannot bargain with the State, implicated the Compensation Clause’s protections. The Court held, “it is settled law that employees’ compensation includes all things of value received from their employers, including wages, bonuses, and benefits” and, thus, the reduction in the State’s contribution to the Judges’ health insurance premiums was a diminishment of their compensation in violation of the Constitution. The Court also held that the reduction was unconstitutional as applied to the Judges because it subjects them to discriminatory treatment.

On appeal, the State argues that it never reduced any direct payment of funds to the Judges and so there is no Compensation Clause problem. Instead, it “merely increased the price of health insurance for those judges who chose to buy a state health insurance plan. This rise in premium prices did not affect judges’ statutorily defined salaries, nor did it eliminate any payment given directly to judges.”

The Court will now have to decide whether the State’s contributions to the Judges’ health insurance premiums are part of their protected compensation.

The Appellate Division, First Department’s opinion can be found here.

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