Justice Saxe (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Retirement has always been an ugly word to me—not one that I have ever really contemplated. There were times over the last few years when thoughts of leaving the bench filtered through my mind, especially when I hit a major milestone like age 65, or 70, when I was required to request certification in order to extend my judicial life to 76. But the looming deadline was really not near enough to force me to contemplate it, so I didn’t. Occasionally, I would daydream about being transported to an event on the Senior Golf Tour in Hawaii or some such place, competing in a sudden death playoff, but those thoughts would drift away and I would then give some brief thoughts to being an arbitrator, mediator or, God forbid, a lawyer again.
There is a judicial age limit in our court system: 70 for the most part, 76 for Supreme Court justices based on certifications for successive two-year terms starting at age 70.
I believe that most states have retirement restrictions for judges; federal judges have no such restrictions. They serve, as the Constitution says, for life, and can enjoy a reduced caseload by selecting a senior status role, although many of these judges continue to carry a full workload.
But we in the state court system face a looming exit. I have watched the departures of some former colleagues at the Appellate Division, First Department: some have remained to the last day of the year that they have turned 76, but others have departed for opportunities before the end of their final term. I have chosen the latter. As much as I love my job, I have a mental picture of a long-departed colleague sitting in his chambers, well past the end of the year that concluded his service, with papers and cardboard boxes strewn throughout his office. Younger colleagues were overheard musing about how soon the elderly jurist would finally depart so that his desirable chambers fronting on the park would be available.
Once a colleague departs, there is little mention of them; occasionally a lunch discussion incorporates some discrete memory, but all institutions close ranks and move on. No one is indispensable.
Thirty-five years is a long time to spend in any job. I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of our judicial system. There wasn’t any part of it that I didn’t enjoy.
To this day, I remember my first assignment on the bench. It was back at the Civil Court at 111 Centre St. and after a day or so of training I was ready to start. I use the word training loosely, because in those days it wasn’t much. One judge, assigned to teach me the principles of settlement, advised me that he found the settlement process coercive and undignified and refused to engage in it; another jurist assigned to instruct me in the arcana of landlord-tenant law told me that the key to success in that part was to develop a fluid signature of your name or initials, the better to accelerate the final judgments of possession.
But at 2 p.m. on an early day in January 1982, I took the bench in a small stuffy courtroom to hear a commercial landlord-tenant dispute concerning a claim for additional rent under the lease. My law clerk, out of law school less than a year, was seated close to me off from the center of the bench. The first witness, the managing agent, droned on. I was vigorously taking notes in my minute book when a question put to the witness produced a loud, bellowed “Objection,” from the other lawyer. I was frozen, a deer caught in the headlights; everything stopped. It was as if the entire world was looking at me although I don’t think there were more than six or seven people in that tiny courtroom. Everyone was waiting; my mouth was dry; then my law clerk poked me surreptitiously with her pen. “Overruled,” I roared and to my surprise, everything continued. Not bad, I thought. Pretty simple.
I did everything that was available; took summary judgment motions in the old Special Term Part I, heard all kinds of small claims cases in that nighttime part in Civil Court, ran the landlord-tenant calendar in the old Part 49, sat as an IAS judge in a City Part at the outset of Chief Judge Sol Wachtler’s great experiment in court management, heard medical malpractice cases, commercial and real estate matters (before there was a Commercial Division), presided over a dedicated Matrimonial Part and sat in the Criminal Term as well.
I then was graced with the opportunity, in 1998, to serve as an associate justice in the Appellate Division, First Department, where I have been for 19 years. To be in this wonderful court and to be able to write on some of the most important legal issues of the day was a dream come true for me. I felt especially privileged to have been able to wrestle with the thorny progression of our common law—a reason why I had gone to law school in the first place.
But the start of my third certification brought thoughts of my forced departure to the forefront of my concerns. As much as I loved my work and as much as I enjoyed the collegiality of my colleagues, I did not want to be the judge sitting forlornly in his chambers engulfed by transfiles, trying to figure out what to do next. I needed to take charge of my life and not allow things just to happen. And so I have, or I hope I have. I have been given the opportunity by a wonderful law firm to start a new chapter in my professional life. I will be doing things that lawyers do—something I haven’t done for the last 35 years. I am looking forward to the change and the challenge.