The New York Post by JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN - May 23, 2010
State judges are trying to join forces with the state's largest teachers union in a campaign to get raises, The Post has learned. Maverick Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur Schack is leading a faction of angry jurists talking to the United Federation of Teachers about putting judges under the umbrella of the local union or its Albany County-based parent, New York State United Teachers. "One option is having judges affiliate with a union for political clout," Schack told The Post. "We're exploring our options." Schack -- a card-carrying member of the UFT who was once a teacher -- has been joined by another Brooklyn judge, Wayne Saitta, in recruiting colleagues to unionize in recent weeks, court sources said. Such a coalition of state judges and a highly politicized labor union would be unprecedented in the country and would open a Pandora's box of ethical issues. The teachers union has had more than a dozen cases before the state bench in the last two years. Only two months ago, a Manhattan judge ruled in the UFT's favor to stop the mayor from closing 19 schools. The state's 1,300 judges currently make $136,700 a year and haven't received a raise in 11 years. They are asking to be paid on par with federal judges, who make $174,000. The judges have tried suing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. Paterson and others for a raise. They've hired the lobbying firm Hinman Straub Advisors to push the issue. Some judges have even recused themselves from cases involving law firms that employ Silver and other lawmakers.
Taking matters into their own hands, some judges have billed their state expense accounts of $10,000 for frivolous expenditures like trips to Cuba and to a California meditation retreat, The Post revealed last year. The decision to seek union help at the bargaining table is seen as a sign of mounting desperation and a controversial foray into politics. Judges normally avoid contact with political groups so they can appear impartial when deciding cases. The state's judicial ethics code says a judge can't be "a member of a political organization" other than a political party. But the UFT and NYSUT are highly political, pouring $5 million a year into lobbying and campaigns to influence lawmakers. Some judges are worried by the plan. "The idea of judges participating in union activities or walking a picket line might be demeaning to the judiciary," said one judge. "Whether it's lawful is one thing, and whether it's appropriate is another thing." Schack, who has a reputation as a populist, has been active in agitating for a pay raise. He attends UFT events and has an acquaintance with the union's president, Michael Mulgrew. Schack's faction has already talked to Howard Schoor, the Brooklyn representative of the UFT, about joining the union, sources say. But because the judges' fight is with Albany, the UFT pointed them to the 600,000-member parent union. Union officials declined to discuss the matter. "Certainly, we're not advocating striking or rebelling," Schack said. The state's Taylor Law prohibits public servants, including judges, from striking. But the law is frequently challenged in court -- in cases that unions bring before judges.