Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2007-05-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :

This year's Law Day theme is supposed to be "Liberty Under Law: Empowering Youth, Assuring Democracy." Despite the possibilities those stirring words invite, that "official" theme must defer to a more compelling subject: New York's judicial salaries (or, more accurately, their erosion through inflation and neglect).

The statistics and figures are now so well known that no informed lawyer in this state needs prompting for the details. New York's judicial salaries rank 38th among all the states, despite our higher costs of living. Eight years have passed since the last adjustment. First-year associates in law firms command a greater starting salary than the judges of our highest trial court. No other group of public servants is restrained as judges are by judicial ethics, from retaliation when subjected to this sort of treatment which, with the passage of years, has surpassed the threshold of pain. The case for an increase is so compelling that no logical argument can refute it.

Our Chief Judge Judith Kaye has decried these facts with the epithets "disgraceful, shabby, and infuriating." They are an understatement. It is worse. The reason it is worse starts with the fact that the question of pay raises no longer begins with the words "whether" or "why."We are beyond that. We need to use another "W" word, as in "What is going on?" The one word response is "politics," but that is no answer. It is just a clue. As we follow the clue, I am going to use the word "Albany" as a collective noun to embrace both the executive and the legislative branches so that I omit neither from what I have to say. With that prelude, let us not forget that when the New Year started, there were promises of a crisp breeze of reform in Albany. Yet, spring has brought us only the stale air of backroom politics.

Judge Kaye aptly observed that "the judiciary has no seat at the bargaining table ... and nothing to give, nothing to barter." That is quite true because it is hard to imagine any of our judges sitting at a bargaining table to "give" or "barter" anything in exchange for money.What could they bargain or barter? Clerks, restrooms or some piece of the court system's infrastructure? Surely, they could not barter away some element of fairness, impartiality or independence. Any deal like that would turn the bench into a gallows from which we all would dangle. It is clear that there is no political "horse trading" going on in which the judiciary can freely swap some prize foal for money. That unremarkable observation leads to more disturbing questions.

It is time to probe the "politics" and expose, "What was the bargain?" But first, let's call the issue by its real name so we can better calculate a fair exchange in this "bargain." The issue is the judiciary, the third branch of government, the place where the "rule of law" is supposed to be the rule of thumb. The judiciary and the rule of law are the things that compel moral obedience from our citizens. They do not compel moral obedience by S.W.A.T. teams, armored cars or battalions of police poised to strike with night sticks. Rather, they compel obedience by respect. Albany's indifference to this simple fact is a disgrace.


Edwin David Robertson