By David Brand
More than 80 attorneys who practice in Queens Supreme Court have signed onto a letter urging Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the Office of Court Administration to recertify Justice Bernice Siegal for another two-year term on the bench.
Siegal is one of 46 state judges who will lose their jobs after OCA’s administrative board decided to slash the judiciary budget and cut ties with nearly every judge over 70 in New York. Under state law, Supreme Court justices are required to apply for recertification and undergo cognitive exams every two years after turning 70 until they reach a mandatory retirement age of 76.
Siegal passed the health and cognition exams and was recommended for a new term by the city bar association. Her departure will have an enormous impact on the Queens legal justice system and force the courts to reassign her roughly 1,600 guardianship cases, the attorneys wrote.
“Guardianship cases are unique, as the presiding Guardianship Judge continues to hear motions on the same case for years,” they wrote. “Judge Siegal, by far, is an outstanding Guardianship Judge and one of the best the State of New York has ever seen.”
They commended Siegal for her “dedication and steadfastness,” which enabled her to continue hearing cases throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Furthermore, Judge Siegal deals with the most helpless and dependent of our population,” they wrote. “She works tirelessly to protect the needs of her wards and understands the global issues that arise in each individual case whether it be inheritance issues, financial abuse, physical and mental abuse, Medicaid, Landlord-Tenant and Adult Protective Services, to name a few.”
The attorneys were organized by the law firm Salem, Shor & Saperstein, LLP, which sent the letter to DiFiore on Oct. 16.
“Her cases only end at the death of her wards,” they added. “Judge Siegal’s intimate familiarity with her cases is what makes her irreplaceable to Queens County.”
Siegal is one of six Queens Supreme Court justices who were not recertified by state court leaders in a surprise move late last month. At least two other judges over 70 declined to apply for recertification after they saw the “handwriting on the wall,” retired Administrative Judge Jeremy Weinstein told the Eagle last month.
Siegal said she was “deeply humbled” by the support of the elder law and guardianship attorneys who wrote on her behalf. The attorneys also sent a letter to every city and state elected official in Queens and the Bronx urging them to pressure OCA to recertify Siegal and other judges.
“I was elected to serve the people of Queens and that’s what I’ve done,” Siegal said. “I had hoped to continue to serve the people as a Supreme Court justice, albeit certificated, and I still hope to serve the people of New York.”
OCA’s administrative board decided not to recertify the judges 70 and older in order to cut the judiciary budget by $300 million, or 10 percent, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks wrote to county administrative judges in late-September. It was then up to the administrative judges to break the news to unsuspecting judges and their staff. The 46 judges’ law secretaries and court clerks will also be laid off unless they are picked up by another judge.
OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said the decision to not recertify judges was a “difficult one,” but necessary to avoid additional layoffs.
“We have had to make a lot of difficult decisions over the past seven months and anticipate that there could be more on the horizon,” Chalfen told the Eagle. “Justice Siegal’s case inventory will be reassigned by the end of the year and the cases will move forward.”