An upstate New York Supreme Court justice, who has not received a pay increase since he took office in 2001, plans to resign by the end of this month because of "the present unfortunate status of New York State's judiciary."
Oneida County Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Julian signaled his intention in a letter dated Dec. 30 to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and distributed by e-mail to the state's 1,300 judges.
A major reason for that "unfavorable circumstance," Julian told the governor, is the "continued failure of the New York State government to compensate the judiciary fairly and pursuant to a non-political methodology."
As for himself, Julian, who earns $136,700 a year, wrote, "I am unwilling to further deplete my savings and reduce my lifestyle to continue in office."
He added, "I believe a number of other judges have retired prematurely because of this sorry situation."
Julian said "merit selection proposals" put forward by the governor and others also had influenced his decision to leave, because they rely on "isolated instances of judicial transgression" to give the governor, Legislature and chief judge "the unprecedented power to appoint the judiciary."
New York's judiciary, he wrote, is well qualified and "certainly not deserving of the implied disparagement because the facts refute the innuendos."
The last judicial raise went into effect in January 1999. For more than two years, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has been warning that the failure to enact a salary increase is compromising the judiciary's ability to attract and retain talented jurists. During that time, only one other judge has gone public in citing the lack of a raise as a reason for leaving the bench.
In 2006, County Court Judge Stewart A. Rosenwasser of Orange County announced his resignation, saying in a statement that he "did not foresee the sacrifices my service would impose on my family" when he took office.
A third judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman, has publicly stated that, because of the prolonged impasse over judicial wages, she is actively seeking another job.
"We are hearing more and more judges who love their jobs and do not want to look at other options talking about looking at other options," Chief Administrative Judge Ann T. Pfau said in an interview Tuesday. "It's worrisome. We certainly hope they don't leave in droves," but the inability to retain and attract top-caliber judges has "always been a concern."
"The failure to adopt a pay raise for 10 years has caused enormous problems for judges throughout the state," said Queens Justice Joseph G. Golia, president of Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. But, he added, "it has created even more difficulties for judges living in New York City and its environs because the cost of living is greater in the metropolitan area."
RELUCTANCE TO RESIGN
Speaking privately, judges cite several reasons why more judges have not left the bench despite the toll inflation has taken on the buying power of their salaries.
Without either capital or clients, judges do not have strong drawing power in the private sector, especially in New York City. In addition, judges for the most part are generalists and do not have skills highly valued in the private sector with the exception of appellate judges and those who have been assigned to the commercial division of Supreme Court.
Firms also may be reluctant to hire departing judges because of the possibility that judges remaining on the bench would have to recuse themselves from cases handled by the firm a former judge joins.
In addition, the potential for conflicts makes looking for a job with a firm "difficult and awkward," Goodman said. Once a judge has any contact with a firm about future employment, it is best to err on the side of caution and recuse oneself from any cases handled by that firm, several judges said.
Julian likewise declined to discuss his future plans for fear that such comments could violate the ethics rule barring judges from using their judicial office to advance private interests.
The potential loss or diminishment of pension benefits can also be a reason to remain on the bench, one judge said. However, another said that some judges are motivated to resign because if they die in office their spouses cannot collect pension benefits after their death.
In an interview, Julian, 56, recounted how the impasse on raises had affected his family.
When he first took the bench, Julian said, he realized his salary as a judge would be less than half of what he had earned in private practice as a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer.
In preparation for the change in his family's economic circumstances, he said, he had cut back on some expenses and built up assets to the point where he felt he could supplement his salary with the income they generated.
But in the last two or three years, he said, he has had to reduce his capital by 10 percent -- in what he called a "very ugly syndrome" -- to make ends meet. His term is scheduled to end in 2014.
Before his election to Supreme Court in 2000, Julian, in addition to his law practice, served as a legislator in Oneida County for 23 years. His brother, Timothy J. Julian, was the mayor of Utica for two terms before being defeated in a re-election bid in November.
Rosenwasser, 55, described a similar experience. During his nearly seven years on the bench, he said he found himself depleting capital and increasing his loans.
"It made no sense to put my family in jeopardy so I could continue to wear a robe," he said.
Since leaving the bench, Rosenwasser has been a partner in five-lawyer Ostrer Rosenwasser, a litigation firm in Montgomery, N.Y.
Goodman, 67, said she is exploring other opportunities because "I am way out on a limb -- I have no savings, no investments -- there is no way I can retire and live in New York City."
"I sold my vacation home, my car is 15 years old and I am $200,000 in debt to meet living expenses," she added.
NEW YORK NOW 49TH
With the last pay raise having gone into effect in 1999, the pay of judges in New York has dropped to 49th in the nation adjusted for inflation. In her latest proposal, Kaye has called for the salaries of state's judges to be tied to the salaries of federal judges.
The current pay of federal district court judges is $165,200. Under Kaye's proposal, the pay of Supreme Court justices would rise to that level with other judges' salaries being adjusted proportionately.
Federal district court judges are slated to get a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase in the middle of this month, and bills have been moving in both houses of Congress to raise the pay of federal district court judges to $218,000. Federal judges have received cost-of-living adjustments in six of the last 14 years.