Pa. House advances bill to raise judicial retirement age

By Jon Campisi | Jul 2, 2013

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may have recently struck down a bid by judges

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may have recently struck down a bid by judges

challenging the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age, but jurists and others who oppose the controversial constitutional provision haven’t met total defeat just yet.

On June 28, the state House of Representatives advanced a measure designed to raise the judicial retirement age from 70 to 75.

The proposal, House Bill 79, which was sponsored by Republican State Rep. Kate Harper of Montgomery County, passed that legislative body by a vote of 157-44, legislative records show.

The bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by fellow Republican legislator Stewart Greenleaf, who has introduced a competing bill that would scrap mandatory retirement ages for judges all together.

When she circulated her co-sponsorship memorandum late last year seeking supporters for H.B. 79, Harper insisted that raising the retirement ages for state judges is “sound policy for the management of our court system.”

“Mandatory retirement is generally unlawful in the United States for most industries and occupations,” Harper had written. “Many states and the federal judiciary have no mandatory retirement age for judges. This results in a system that is arguably less discriminatory and allows voters the right to elect and retain judges of their choice regardless of age.”

Harper noted that the life expectancy of the average person in 1968, the year the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended to include the mandatory judicial retirement age, was about 70 years.

Today, however, people are living much longer.

“Accordingly, 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.”

Both Harper and Greenleaf introduced their respective bills back in January.

The legislative route appears to be the only way judges who oppose mandatory retirement might get their wish.

In mid-June, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition by a handful of judges challenging the retirement age, upholding the constitutional provision that mandates jurists retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

In its ruling, the high court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the mandatory retirement age violates their constitutional rights.

The justices said that the demographic changes that have taken place since the provision was added during the 1968 constitutional convention was irrelevant in this case.

Their ruling stated that the plaintiff judges “cite to no authority suggesting that a constitutional amendment that was valid at its inception can become unconstitutional due to societal changes that have occurred with the passage of time.”

The ruling was unanimous and signed by all six justices.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s mandatory judicial retirement age remains pending in federal court.

The U.S. District Judge overseeing that case issued a stay pending the outcome of the state case, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ended up taking immediate jurisdiction over resulting in the expedited decision.

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