The New York State Unified Court System has over 3,500 judges and justices, ranging from part-time justices of town and village courts, to part-time or full-time city court judges, to full-time judges of higher courts such as District, Family, County, Surrogate and Supreme Courts.  Town and village court justices are also referred to as magistrates, and judges of the higher courts are sometimes referred to as “statewide” judges, even though not all of them have statewide jurisdiction.

The salaries of the approximately 2,250 part-time town and villages justices are set by their local governing authorities, such as an elected town board.  They range from less than $8,000 a year to more than $50,000, depending on the population, workload and financial resources of the local community.  Generally, the salaries tend toward the lower end of the range.

The salaries of the more than 1,250 statewide judges and justices are set by the state Legislature, which also sets the salaries of its own members and the state’s Executive officers and commissioners, subject to approval or veto by the Governor, as with other legislation.

Much public attention has recently been drawn to the fact that the full-time judiciary, as well as Executive officers and commissioners and members of the Legislature, have not had a salary increase since 1999.

In 1999, the Legislature raised judicial salaries to approximate parity with federal judges, equating a state Supreme Court justice with a US District Court judge, and setting the salary at $136,700.  Judges of lower and higher courts were compensated proportionately, ranging from $108,800 for city court judges in smaller cities, to $156,000 for the Chief Judge of the State of New York.

Since 1999, the salaries of US District Court judges, which are set by Congress, have increased more than once, to their present level of $165,200, which is roughly equivalent to the salary for a member of Congress ($169,300).  Federal judges, like full-time New York State judges and most full-time judges throughout the country, are not permitted to practice law or otherwise engage in other employment activities, with limited exceptions, such as teaching classes at a law school.

The Commission believes that an appropriate increase in the salaries of the statewide judiciary is well deserved and long overdue.  It has long been the Commission’s experience that the overwhelming majority of judges and justices in the State Unified Court System are capable, dedicated, talented and honorable men and women who uphold the high standards of conduct necessary to maintain an independent and fair-minded judiciary, and to promote the fair and proper administration of justice.  Without such people of integrity, the delicate constitutional system of checks and balances that is the hallmark of American democracy would erode.  Without fair compensation commensurate with the judiciary’s important role, the strains on this delicate balance threaten to become acute.

The Commission urges the Legislature to enact and the Governor to sign an appropriate judicial compensation measure.[1]

The Commission makes this recommendation without comment on the merits of pending litigation addressing the judicial compensation issue.

The Commission is also aware of recent published reports suggesting that at least some judges are encouraging or engaging in acts of recusal from cases involving law firms which include members of the state Legislature, purportedly based upon frustration over the compensation issue.

Notwithstanding the judiciary’s understandable disappointment at the continuing compensation impasse, the Commission calls attention to the relevant opinions of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, which state and reiterate that, while recusal is discretionary, as long as a judge believes he or she can be impartial, recusal is not required in cases involving legislators, notwithstanding the salary lawsuit.  The Advisory Committee concluded that, “even following commencement of a judicial compensation lawsuit by the Chief Judge and the Unified Court System, the relationship between a judge, who is not a named party to that lawsuit, and a legislator remains too remote a factor, in and of itself, to reasonably call into question a judge’s impartiality when a legislator or a member of his/her law firm appears before a judge in an unrelated action.”  Joint Opinion 08-76, 08-84, 08-88 and 08-89.  (Emphasis in original.)  Indeed, the Advisory Committee held that if a judge believes he or she can be fair and impartial, opting for disqualification over the compensation issue would erode public confidence in the integrity, impartiality and independence of the judiciary.  Id.

Opinions of the Advisory Committee are presumptively binding on the Commission.[2]

The Commission, which enforces the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct that all judges are obliged to observe, notes that among other things, the Rules require that a “judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially and fairly,” and that “the judicial duties of a judge take precedence over all the judge’s other activities.” §§100.3, 100.3(A).  A judge must be faithful to the law, must be patient, dignified and courteous and must not act with bias for or against any party.  §§100.3(B)(1), (3), (4).  A judge must observe high standards of conduct, act “at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and not use the prestige of judicial office to advance a private interest. §§100.1, 100.2(A), (C).  A judge must “not make any public comment about a pending or impending proceeding...” §100.3(B)(8).[3]  A judge must not “make pledges or promises of conduct in office that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of the office,” and “with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court, [a judge must not] make commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of the office.” §100.3(B)(9)(a, b).

It would benefit neither the judiciary nor their justifiable interest in a fair compensation package for the Commission to be constrained to consider complaints against judges alleged to have violated these or other sections of the Rules in connection with the salary issue.  The Commission urges all parties with a role to play in this matter to do so responsibly, professionally and with the utmost sensitivity to promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, the courts and the administration of justice.

 

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[1] Judiciary Law §42(4) authorizes the Commission to make recommendations to the Governor and the Legislature.

[2] Under Judiciary Law §212, the conduct of a judge who observes an Advisory Committee opinion “is presumed proper for the purposes of any subsequent investigation by the state commission on judicial conduct.”

[3] This paragraph of the Rules “does not prohibit judges from making public statements in the course of their official duties or from explaining for public information the procedures of the court.  This paragraph does not apply to proceedings in which the judge is a litigant in a personal capacity.”

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From the 2008 Annual Report, pages 20-22.