By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The issue of inadequate judicial pay raises is still alive and well, as evidenced by the recent statement by Hon. Ariel Belen, associate justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, that he would be stepping down from the bench after 17 years of judicial service.
Justice Belen has accepted a position at JAMS, a private alternative dispute resolution provider, and will officially step down from the bench in mid-October 2012.
As the New York Law Journal mentioned, Belen, a Brooklyn judge for many years, cited the lack of a pay raise as the main force driving his decision hang up his black robe.
For many years, New York state judges battled the state legislature on the issue of judicial pay raises — they had not seen a salary increase since 1999. Indeed, in 2008, Administrative Judge for Criminal Matters Barry Kamins, who at that time was a criminal defense attorney, led a demonstration on the steps of Kings County Supreme Court for higher judicial salaries.
In 2010, the battle was won when the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled that Albany lawmakers violated the New York State Constitution by attempting to link judicial salary raises to unrelated legislation. Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr, writing for the court, stated that judicial compensation should be determined “on the merits [and] not relative to unrelated policy initiatives.” As a result of Pigott’s decision, a Special Commission of Judicial Compensation was created.
Finally, in April 2012, New York State judges received a 17 percent raise with raises expected in 2013 and 2014.
But even beforehand, in 2011, the Brooklyn Bar Association, along with the city and state bars, called the planned judicial pay raise inadequate. Then-Brooklyn Bar Association President Ethan Gerber called the pay raise “absurd,” saying that the salary increase is not near what the judges deserve.
“These judges have not had a raise in 12 years,” Gerber said in August 2011. “It’s absurd that any raise given after 12 years is not commensurate with the work that is required of them.”
For Justice Belen, as well, the pay raise did not come soon enough. In an interview with the New York Law Journal, Belen stated that "the pay raise was welcome, but it really was long overdue” and that the raise does not “really change substantially a judge's life, particularly in New York City.”
Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, a strong advocate of judicial pay raises and a supporter of the Judicial Compensation Commission, was saddened by Belen’s departure. Judge Kaye informed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that she is "first and foremost heartbroken that Judge Belen is leaving the bench.”
“It is always sad when we lose a terrific judge. On the broader scale, I continue to regret that anybody, any judge, has to struggle to make ends meet and that the judicial raises have been so long in coming. On the other side the scale, we now have a new system--a commission system — that takes the salaries of judges out of the political arena," she said.
The current chief judge of the State of New York, Johnathan Lippman, is also “disappointed” about Belen’s departure but, “understands that Belen needs money to meet his financial responsibilites.” Belen has a special needs child.
Lippman further told the Eagle that “the judiciary is not a place to become a wealthy person but judges should receive regular and periodic increases in their salaries.” Lippman notes that Belen is a “fabulous judge, one of [the] best,” and wishes him the best of luck.
Belen, previously a Brooklyn State Supreme Court justice, was appointed to the Appellate Division in 2008. The same year, he was honored by the Cervantes Society, an organization of Hispanic lawyers and judges.