The New York Law Journal by Joel Stashenko - September 20, 2010
ALBANY, NY - Stuart M. Cohen, after 14 years of managing the day-to-day operations of the state's highest court as its clerk, has announced his retirement as of Nov. 24. "Nobody's indispensable, least of all me," Mr. Cohen said in an interview Friday at the Court of Appeals in Albany. "It's a challenging job and it's tiring, frankly. I am not going to kid you, I'm a little tired." Mr. Cohen, 57, who went to work at the Court 25 years ago, said that an early retirement program being offered to state court employees was a major factor in his decision to step down from the $136,500-a-year job. "Until this thing [the early retirement incentive] came along I had not considered leaving, that was always somewhere a little ways off on the horizon," Mr. Cohen said. "This incentive, when it came along and I determined it would apply to me to give me 30 years [of state service], that's what really got me thinking about it."
The cash-strapped state is offering incentives to court workers and other employees to "boost" their ages to the retirement threshold of 62 or their state service to 30 years in return for their beginning their retirements early without penalty (NYLJ, June 1). Court officials expect more than 10 percent of non-judicial workers to take advantage of the benefit. Mr. Cohen said he wants to provide better care to his parents, who are both in their late 80s, and he probably will return to a solo practice like the one he maintained in Brooklyn in the early 1980s after graduating from New York University School of Law. The Court of Appeals announced that it has designated Andrew W. Klein, who has been one of two consultation clerks since September 1990, to succeed Mr. Cohen. Consultation clerks sit with the judges during their closed-door discussions of cases and advise them on issues of appealability and reviewability. Mr. Klein has also overseen in recent years the preparation of the Court's written rulings for release to the public. Mr. Cohen also attended the judges' conferences. He said he has rarely volunteered a thought to the judges unless they asked him for his opinion or a question of court precedent. Mr. Cohen is only the 17th appointed clerk since the position was established in 1869. Between the formation of the Court in 1846 and 1869, clerks were elected statewide. He said Friday that in addition to "managing" cases before the Court—making sure briefs and other papers were filed or responded to on time—he frequently talks to dissatisfied lawyers or other litigants once decisions appear. "This is not the kind of job where there's really any training for or preparation for," Mr. Cohen said. "The law is a big part of it, but it's not the only part. In a lot of ways, the other parts have been more challenging. There are a million things you don't learn about in law school. You don't learn about renovating a building. You don't learn about dealing with personnel. You don't learn about dealing with angry pro ses who don't understand why they've been unsuccessful in their litigation." Mr. Cohen said that as long as members of the public are not abusive, all who write or call the Court get a response. Mr. Cohen has also presided over the posting of Court of Appeals' rulings on its Web site and the beginning of electronic filing at the Court. The current chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, credited Mr. Cohen in a statement with making the Court "more efficient, transparent and accessible to the public."
Joseph Bellacosa, the former Court of Appeals judge who was clerk of the Court from 1975 to 1983, said he was the first clerk invited into the confidential conferences where judges revealed their positions on cases still under consideration by the judges. Mr. Bellacosa said the clerk has evolved in that role into a kind of chief counsel to members of the Court as they deliberate over cases. The clerk is also the staffer on the Court of Appeals that New Yorkers are most apt to have contact with, said Mr. Bellacosa, a judge on the Court from 1987-2000. "The clerk is the face of the Court to the public and to lawyers," Mr. Bellacosa said. Judith S. Kaye, a member of the court from 1983 to 2008 and chief judge from 1993 to 2008, said Mr. Cohen kept the workings of the Court "well oiled" so judges could focus on hearing and deciding cases and not on procedural issues. By being allowed into judges' conferences, Mr. Cohen is "at the elbows" of members of the Court as they deliberate over cases, said Ms. Kaye on Friday. "He is privy to their most private, most serious discussions of the Court," she said. She described Mr. Cohen as the "face of the Court." Joel Stashenko can be reached at email@example.com.
Professional: Consultation clerk, Court of Appeals, 1990-present; assistant consultation clerk, 1983-90; litigation associate, Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, 1983-84; litigation associate, Whitman & Ransom 1980-83; law clerk, Court of Appeals central legal research staff, 1977-80.
Education: B.A., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1974; J.D., St. John's University School of Law, 1977.
Personal: Married with no children, lives in Middleburgh.
Professional: clerk of the state Court of Appeals, 1996-present; Deputy clerk, 1987-96; law clerk to former Court of Appeals judge Sol Wachtler, 1985-87; law clerk to former Court of Appeals judge Jacob D. Fuchsberg, 1982-83; appellate law research assistant, Appellate Division, Second Department, 1980-82; solo practitioner, 1979-80.
Education: B.A., Connecticut College, 1976; J.D., New York University Law School, 1979.
Personal: Divorced with no children, lives in Rensselaer.