Pa. Supreme Court agrees to hear expedited challenge to state's mandatory judicial retirement age

By Jon Campisi | Apr 3, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the state’s mandatory

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the state’s mandatory

judicial retirement age in an expedited fashion.

In two brief per curiam orders issued on March 28, the high court granted the applications for extraordinary relief that had been filed in two separate cases involving state judges suing over a provision in the commonwealth’s constitution that mandates judges retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

One case was initiated by Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Arthur Tilson and the other involved the combined cases of Senior Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge John Driscoll, and Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judges Sandra Mazer Moss and Joseph D. O’Keefe.

In its two separate orders, the high court directed the prothonotary to establish an expedited briefing schedule and list the two cases for oral arguments during the court’s May 2013 Harrisburg session.

The defendants named in both of the cases are Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, state Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol T. Aichele, and state Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines.

The trial judges are challenging Article V, Section 16 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as unconstitutional.

The jurists claim that the mandatory retirement provision violates Article 1 of the state constitution.

Tilson was among a handful of judges who filed suit in Commonwealth Court last November alleging that the mandatory retirement age as laid out in the commonwealth’s constitution violates their rights under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The governor and the other defendants ended up removing the lawsuits to the federal court system, where four of the plaintiffs’ actions ended up being consolidated and are pending before a U.S. District judge, while another handful of judge-plaintiffs agreed to dismiss their claims so that they could be re-filed in state court in order to challenge the mandatory retirement provision under the commonwealth’s constitution at the state level, according to the Legal Intelligencer.

The upcoming arguments at the state level before Pennsylvania’s high court should be interesting; Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, himself, is set to reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 next year while three other justices are poised to reach the retirement age within the next six years, the Legal Intelligencer reported.

Whether or not the fact that justices themselves would be negatively impacted by the mandatory retirement requirement presents a conflict of interest for them hearing the merits of the cases remains to be seen.

But since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, it doesn’t appear the plaintiff judges would have much recourse, at least at the state level, should the mandatory retirement provision be upheld as constitutional.

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