The Court of Appeals in Albany
The Court of Appeals in Albany ()

ALBANY – The state’s highest court on Wednesday heard oral arguments as to whether New York violated the compensation clause of the state constitution by reducing its contributions to judges’ health insurance premiums.

The lawsuit, Bransten v. State of New York, filed by 13 sitting and retired Supreme Court justices and two judicial associations in 2012 was a result of a 2011 budgetary issue that allowed legislators to lower the state’s contributions toward health insurance premiums for state employees. The reductions in the state’s contributions to employees’ health insurance premiums were part of an effort to avoid layoffs amid a budget crisis. The affected workers were promised job security in exchange for contributing more toward their health insurance bill.

In 2014, the Appellate Division, First Department, ruled that the reduced contribution “increased the amounts withheld from judicial salaries [and] constitutes an unconstitutional diminution of judicial compensation.”

The state argues that the reduction of its contributions did not violate the constitutional ban because it “did not directly affect any constitutionally protected compensation at all.”

Associate Judge Michael Garcia asked Assistant Solicitor General Judith Vale, who is representing the state in the matter, whether the reduction in the state’s contribution to health insurance premiums is directly or indirectly an effect on judicial compensation.

“It may not fit in a particular box. When it comes to talking about the effect on salary this is clearly an indirect effect on protected salary,” Vale said.

Alan Klinger of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, who is representing the respondents, argued that compensation includes wages, benefits and anything of value that an employer provides.

“If that’s the case, where do we draw the line because compensation must mean something,” said Associate Judge Jenny Rivera. “Otherwise, it means anything and everything and we have no ways to measure the parameters of the compensation clause.”

“What’s at issue here are health benefits and health benefits are akin to pensions in terms of both being viewed as deferred compensation,” Klinger responded.

Oral arguments were also heard by Judges Rowan Wilson and Eugene Fahey. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judges Leslie Stein and Paul Feinman were recused from the case and three visiting Appellate Division Justices, Erin Peradotto, Robert Mulvey and Mark Dillon, were vouched in.