Pa. House subcommittee hears testimony on bill to up judicial retirement age

By Jon Campisi | Apr 19, 2013

A state House subcommittee recently held a hearing on a bill sponsored by a suburban

Philadelphia legislator that would allow judges to continue to serve past age 70.

The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts gathered to hear testimony on the proposal, House Bill 79, which was authored by Rep. Kate Harper, (R-Montgomery), and would amend the commonwealth’s constitution to increase the mandatory retirement age for judges to 75.

Currently, the state’s constitution mandates that all judges retire by the end of the year in which they turn 70.

The constitutional provision is currently the subject of two lawsuits initiated by a handful of judges challenging the retirement age.

One suit is playing out in state court and the other in federal court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently agreed to expedite its hearing of the state case, while the federal judge overseeing the federal case has agreed to stay that case for the time being.

Harper, the lawmaker behind the push to up the judicial retirement age, has said that as a lawyer for the past three decades, she has appeared before many different judges, and age isn’t always a determining factor in their capabilities on the bench.

“I have seen these men and women in their courtrooms and in their communities, and I have a hard time believing that having a 71st birthday suddenly renders everyone incompetent to be a judge,” she said in a statement. “Experience matters. The current mandatory retirement age of 70 ‘throws the baby out with the bathwater,’ ridding the courts of wise, older judges who have become better with age, along with those whose abilities have declined.”

Harper went on to stay that as opposed to forcing “qualified, capable” judges out at age 70, the commonwealth should rely on the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline to remove judges of any age who are no longer fit to serve on the bench.

During the hearing, Ken Gormley, the dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, testified in favor of Harper’s bill, according to the Pennsylvania Republican Caucus.

“Changing the retirement age to 75 strikes the perfect balance,” Gormley said in his testimony, according to a Republican Caucus news release. “It adjusts the mandatory retirement age to reflect the fact that men and women live longer and are mentally and physically productive longer.”

Another witness at the hearing, Thomas Weida, a professor of family and community medicine at Penn State University, addressed the mental acuity of older judges with regard to dementia and the like, according to the Republican Caucus.

“Even in advanced age, the prevalence of dementia which can interfere with decision making is relatively small, particularly up to age 75,” Weida reportedly said at the hearing. “There is no sharp decline of mental functioning between age 70 and 75. We should not lose valuable expertise and wisdom on the bench by forcing retirement of jurists at age 70.”

Others who testified during the hearing were representatives of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Philadelphia Bar Association, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Aside from Pennsylvania, 33 other states and the District of Columbia currently have mandatory judicial retirement ages ranging from 70 to 75, according to the Republican Caucus.

Sixteen other states are mulling over bills similar to Harper’s that address the judicial retirement age issue.

Harper’s bill would have to be adopted in two consecutive sessions of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and then voted on by citizens in a public referendum.

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