Court System Budget Cuts Force Appellate Division Justices Off the Bench

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, the state had a huge budget deficit to overcome. With the pandemic decreasing state revenues even further, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a planned $300 million reduction to the New York court system’s budget. That’s a very large cut, and the courts did not have a choice but to take some drastic cost cutting measures in response.

Unfortunately, one of the measures that Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks and the courts chose to make up for the 10% budget reduction was to deny 46 judges recertification to the bench after they reached the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

Under Judiciary Law 114 and 115, judges of the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court (including both the Appellate Division and the trial bench) may apply to be recertified to the Supreme Court bench after they retire for up to 3 terms of 2 years each. So, a judge who reaches the age of 70 may continue to serve either on the Appellate Division or the trial bench after their mandatory retirement until they reach the age of 76, if the court system finds that they “has the mental and physical capacity to perform the duties of such office and (b) that [their] services are necessary to expedite the business of the supreme court” (Judiciary Law 114 [1]; id. 115 [1]).

Recertification of retired judges is fairly routine. For example, once Court of Appeals Associate Judge Eugene Pigott reached mandatory retirement age and was forced off the Court of Appeals bench, he applied for and was granted recertification as a trial court judge in Erie County. Although routine, recertification is not guaranteed, however. The decision lies in the discretion of the Administrative Board of the Courts.

To make up part of the $300 million budget cut that Governor Cuomo has forced on the court system, Judge Marks announced that 46 judges would not be certified to the bench for terms beginning January 1, 2021, including 7 Justices of the Appellate Division. The First Department will be losing 2 Justices (David Friedman and Ellen Gesmer). The Second Department will lose 4 (Jeffrey Cohen, John Leventhal, Joseph Maltese, and Sheri Roman). And Justice Eugene Devine will leave the Third Department.

Only 3 judges were granted recertification notwithstanding the budget cuts: (1) Appellate Division, First Department Administrative Judge Angela Mazzarelli, who serves on “a number of task forces and commissions such as the State Commission on Judicial Conduct,” according to the court system spokesperson; (2) Appellate Term, First Department Justice Carol Edmead; and (3) Appellate Term, Second Department Administrative Judge Jerry Garguilo.

The budget cuts will certainly take a toll on the court system, but especially the Appellate Division, Second Department, which is already trying to reduce its large backlog of pending undecided appeals, and now loses 4 Justices from the court. Although this was likely unavoidable due to the unprecedented circumstances that the state and court system now face, it’s still troubling if it only further delays the resolution of pending appeals. For as they say, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

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