December 2, 2021

Retired Supreme Court justice Phillip Rumsey reflects on tenure

‘There’s just another life’

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Phillip Rumsey stands in the main courtroom of Cortland County Court Thursday. Rumsey has retired as a state Supreme Court justice, to be succeeded by his law clerk, Mark Masler.

Phillip Rumsey’s life has been centered around Cortland County Courthouse since his childhood.

He grew up in an apartment above his parents’ store in a building next to the Cortland Free Library, learned how to ride a bike at the park in front of the courthouse, went to junior high school in what is now the Cortland County Office Building and learned to swim in a building across from the Cortland Fire Department’s station that used to be a YMCA, he said.

After 26 years as a Supreme Court justice for the state’s 6th Judicial District, Rumsey retired Oct. 5.

The state Constitution requires Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70, which he turned last year, though justices can apply to the state’s court system and serve two-year terms until age 76, he said.

“It just seemed very convenient that somebody had to be elected to my seat at age 70,” he said. “It’s a great job. It’s a thrill, but there’s just another life.”

Mark Masler, his successor and former principal law clerk beginning in 2008, took over his position on New Year’s Day after being elected in November’s general election, he said.

“It was a privilege and an honor to work for him,” Masler said. “He was a great Supreme Court justice. He has an abiding respect for the rule of law and the obligation to apply it fairly in every case.”

Rumsey plans to spend his time retired traveling with his wife, Marie Rumsey, to Florida and visiting his grandchildren on Long Island and in Chicago, he said.

He said he realizes two things as he retires.

“The first thing is that I’m so honored to have been given the opportunity to be in this elected seat, succeeding such a great person as Paul Yesawich,” Rumsey said. “The second thing that I’m taking away is that especially because of my work the last few years at the Appellate Division, is that I have an enhanced appreciation for police and the work they do and for workers in Child Protective Services.”

Rumsey began his career as an attorney at Ryan and Rumsey in Homer in 1976 before serving as an assistant district attorney and assistant county attorney, according to State of New York Supreme Court Appellate Division Third Judicial Department’s website.

He served as Cortlandville town attorney from 1983 to 1993 before being elected as a Supreme Court justice in 1993, Rumsey said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed him to the Third Department of the Appellate Division, the first appeals level court in the state, in 2017.

“It was a thrill at the Appellate Division. You had excellent lawyers at the Appellate Division in Albany,” including Barbara Underwood, Rumsey said.

Underwood sued President Trump’s charity, The Trump Foundation, as the state’s attorney general in 2018 stating “Trump used it to pay legal settlements for his for-profit businesses, to buy portraits of himself and to boost his presidential campaign by paying for giveaways at his Iowa rallies,” according to a Washington Post article.

His time as a Supreme Court justice before 2017 was spent at the trial level, where he oversaw civil cases. When he was appointed to the Appellate Division, his duties changed to reviewing decisions on previous cases.

Among cases Rumsey noted were:

  • A dispute between Cazenovia Central School District and St. James Roman Catholic Church where the school district leased buses to the church to bring students from the schools to the church and whether that was a conflict of the separation of state and religion.
  • A lawsuit by the state’s attorney general against block parties hosted by SUNY Cortland students, considering them a public nuisance.
  • A husband who wanted to get the body of his wife who had been strangled to death but was deemed not to be the surviving spouse.

One of his cases made national news when he upheld a decision in 2012 that the town of Dryden could ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas after a lawsuit was led in 2011 by Anschutz Exploration Corp., a private gas and oil company, when Dryden enacted a zoning amendment prohibiting hydrofracking. Anschutz Exploration Corp. held leases covering more than 22,000 acres in Dryden.

“The issue wasn’t, ‘Is hydrofracking good or bad?’ That wasn’t what I was asked to do,” Rumsey said. “What it really was was, ‘Do municipalities have this power?’” Rumsey agreed the town has the authority.

Hydrofracking was banned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York in 2014.

“Judge Rumsey’s an awesome judge,” said Natalie Miner, a Homer lawyer. “He’s always judicious and fair.”

Miner joined Ryan and Rumsey in 1992, where Rumsey mentored her, she said. She has since taken over the firm.

As he looks back on his career, Rumsey noted that personal backgrounds of judges shouldn’t get in the way of decision making.

“Sometimes people expect, ‘He’s a Republican, you can almost guess how he might rule’ on election matters, for example,” he said. “I don’t know of any other judge in Central New York or upstate New York that doesn’t want to do the right thing. Once you’re there, you have to be guided by the law. You want to do what’s right. You’re not going to do anything than what you firmly believe is the right thing to do.’I know that’s what Judge Yesawich did, that’s what I’ve always tried to do and I know that’s what Judge Masler is going to do.”