Jon Campisi Oct. 16, 2013, 3:47pm


The Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill

sponsored by the state House of Representatives that would increase the mandatory judicial retirement age from 70 to 75.

The bill, H.B. 79, previously passed the House, and this week’s 44-6 vote in the Senate means the measure is one step closer to becoming law.

State Rep. Kate Harper, (R-Montgomery), sponsored the proposal late last year after a handful of state judges filed lawsuits challenging the provision in the commonwealth’s constitution that forces judges and justices from the bench at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

The judges lost their lawsuits – one had been filed in state court and the other at the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg – although that didn’t stop legislators from stepping in to try and rectify the situation for the judges.

The plaintiffs had maintained that older jurists should be able to serve out their term on the bench, not just because they were elected by voters to do so, but because people are living longer, healthier lives, and mental acuity on the part of people has improved vastly from what it was yesteryear.

The judges lost their lawsuits, with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determining that the mandatory retirement provision was properly added to the state constitution by voters, and a federal judge ruling that the mandatory retirement age provision doesn’t violate the judges’ federal constitutional rights.

In her Dec. 11, 2012, co-sponsorship memorandum, Harper, the representative from suburban Philadelphia, had written that by giving judges more time on the bench, the “Commonwealth and its citizens will benefit from the knowledge, experience, and temperament of seasoned jurists.”

Harper also noted that the average life expectancy has increased since 1968, the year the provision was added to the constitution, and that it “seems appropriate to update our Constitution to reflect this new reality by changing the mandatory retirement age for our judges to 75 years old.”

Harper had also noted that mandatory retirement is generally illegal for most industries and jobs in America, and that many states and the federal government currently do not force judges to retire by a certain age.

The House bill, which was originally introduced last legislative session as H.B. 2129, was passed by that body on a 157-44 vote back in late June, according to legislative records.

It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee two days later, which, earlier this month, moved the bill up to the full Senate following a 13-1 vote.

In order to become law, the constitutional amendment must receive a majority vote during two consecutive legislative sessions of the General Assembly.

It then has to be voted on by the public in a referendum.

Pennsylvania currently does allow certain judges to work past 70, but only under special circumstances.

Those jurists, who can serve up until age 78, are called senior judges and receive daily pay instead of a full yearly salary.

Last year, Pennsylvania paid 86 senior judges $11 million in compensation and pension payments, according to a report on the website TribLive.com.

The website attributed the figures to a study by the Citizens’ Voice in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who is paid $205,415 per year, will turn 70 in the spring and must retire by the end of next year, according to TribLive.

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