A Robe, a Gavel, and a Free Society – Samuel W. Seymour

Samuel W. Seymour

 President’s Column, December 2010 

“All the rights secured to the citizens under the Constitution are worth nothing, and a mere bubble, except guaranteed to them by an independent and virtuous Judiciary.”

– Andrew Jackson

An independent judiciary, composed of skilled and dedicated jurists, has been recognized since our country’s founding as a cornerstone of American democracy. The esteem in which our courts are held, and their ability to properly administer justice, depend ultimately on the ability of the nation’s judicial systems to recruit and retain judges of exceptional legal talent and integrity.

Governor David Paterson, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the New York State Legislature are to be strongly commended for their efforts in passing Bill A42010, creating a state commission on judicial compensation. The new seven-member commission will periodically evaluate and adjust the salaries of New York judges to ensure that they remain competitive and commensurate with the skill and experience New Yorkers expect of their judiciary.

Unlike similar bodies in other states, the recommendations of New York’s commission will have the force of law, and will not require the additional approval of the State Legislature. Such a streamlined method of salary adjustment should keep our state’s judicial system free from the caprices of electoral politics and legislative wrangling, and sets a new standard in commitment to judicial independence.

Some have publicly criticized this measure as further delaying fair pay for judges; “too little, too late,” they say. Like most legislative acts, it bears the familiar hallmarks of compromise and represents a total victory for no party. While we well understand the impatience of a judiciary that has not received a salary increase since 1999, this law provides a path forward that has been stubbornly blocked for years and it will result in a pay increase where any remedy is badly needed.

It is an honor to be elected to or appointed to the bench in the State of New York, but that position also asks a considerable sacrifice of some of our state’s best legal minds. Since the last judicial salary increase, court caseloads have risen by over 700,000 cases. Our judges are compensated below the level of junior associates in our City’s largest private law firms. Judges willingly accept lower salaries in order to join the bench, and none expect to be compensated at the level of top private practice attorneys. However, the disparities have grown too great, and bespeak a lack of respect for our dedicated judiciary. A regular evaluation of their salaries, free from political manipulation, is essential to maintaining the high quality of our judiciary.

Earlier this month we hosted “How to Become a Judge,” our biannual day-long program where judges, public officials and other experts involved in judicial selection and election explain the paths to state and federal judgeships in New York City. Chief Judge Lippman and Deputy Mayor Carol Robles-Roman gave keynote addresses. We view this role as part of our mission to support a strong, talented bench.

This Association remains firm in its belief that true democracy requires a truly excellent and independent judiciary. We expect a great deal from our judges, and it cannot be a one-way bargain. The lack of a salary increase has been a dark cloud over our judicial branch, and I am pleased to see those clouds beginning to part.