Jon Campisi May 17, 2013, 6:46am

The suburban Philadelphia lawmaker behind the push to increase the retirement age for

state judges appears pleased with the bill’s recent advancement in a legislative committee.

State Rep. Kate Harper, a Montgomery County Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 79, which would increase the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age from 70 to 75.

Currently, jurists of all levels - from magisterial district judges and trial court judges to appeals judges and state Supreme Court justices - must retire by the end of the year in which they turn 70.

A handful of judges are currently challenging the state constitutional provision in court, both on the state and federal levels.

In a statement released by her office on May 15, Harper said she was pleased that her measure was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week.

“Forcing our judges to retire at age 70 can result in the loss of valuable knowledge and experience on the bench,” Harper stated. “Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should consider giving capable judges the option to continue their service to our Commonwealth.”

This week’s move to advance the legislation out of committee is a step in the right direction, say supporters like Harper, but the measure is far from becoming law.

Because the judicial retirement age is mandated in the commonwealth’s constitution, H.B. 79 would have to be adopted in two consecutive sessions of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and then be voted on by the citizenry in a public referendum.

The handful of state judges who are currently challenging the mandatory retirement age in court contend the state constitutional provision violates their federal constitutional rights.

The jurists also note that with people living and working longer, there’s no valid reason why judges should be forced to leave the bench when they become a septuagenarian.

Harper has noted that the mandatory judicial retirement age wasn’t always contained within the Pennsylvania constitution; it was put in place in 1968, the last time Pennsylvania held a statewide constitutional convention.

Since that time, the average life expectancy has increased from age 70 to 78, Harper stated, and many people are living well into their 70s and 80s.

During an April public hearing on Harper’s proposal, her office noted, one physician spoke about the mental acuity of older jurists, testifying that there is no sharp decline in mental functioning between the ages of 70 and 75, and that the prevalence of senior citizens with dementia in that age bracket is relatively small, meaning such judges shouldn’t have a problem working.

Those like Harper who support raising the judicial retirement age note the processes already in place to remove from the bench judges who are no longer competent enough to serve in their judicial roles, namely through an act of the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline.

According to Harper’s office, 33 states, plus Washington, D.C., have mandatory judicial retirement ages ranging from 70 to 75.

Sixteen other states beside Pennsylvania are currently mulling over legislation that addresses mandatory judicial retirement, with most of the proposals being to either increase the age limit or remove it altogether.

The federal court system has no mandatory retirement age for judges.

Harper’s bill is now slated to go to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

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