HARRISBURG - A bill to amend the state constitution and raise the mandatory retirement
age for Pennsylvania judges from 70 to 75 has taken another step closer to reaching the voting booths this week.
The proposal was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, prime sponsor of the measure. The bill now goes to the full House for its consideration.
Because it is a constitutional amendment, the same legislation must be adopted in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before it can be voted on by Pennsylvania citizens.
“Forcing a judge to retire simply because he or she meets a certain age can actually be a detriment to the justice system because we lose that judge’s knowledge and experience on the bench,” Harper said.
“I believe it is in the best interest of the Commonwealth to give capable judges the option to continue their service, and my legislation will ultimately put that question to the voters.”
Harper’s House Bill 90 seeks a ballot question to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to increase the mandatory retirement age for justices, judges and justices of the peace from 70 to 75. The identical measure passed both the House and Senate in 2013. If it passes both chambers again in the 2015-16 legislative session, it would be placed on the ballot for the voters to decide.
The Judiciary Committee on Tuesday also adopted House Bill 89, which would implement the increased retirement age if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters.
Harper noted the current mandatory retirement age was put in place in 1968. Since that time, the average life expectancy has increased from age 70 to age 78, and many people are living well into their 80s and 90s.
At a public hearing on her proposal in 2013, a doctor testified about the mental acuity of older judges, noting that there is no sharp decline of mental functioning between age 70 and 75 and that the prevalence of dementia was relatively small. Harper noted there are processes in place through the Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline to remove judges of any age who are no longer competent to serve.
Thirty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, require mandatory retirement of judges at ages ranging from 70-75. In addition to Pennsylvania, 16 other states are considering bills that address mandatory retirement, in most cases either to increase the age or to remove it. In the federal courts, there is no age limit for serving as a judge.
Several Pennsylvania judges have attempted to settle the matter through civil suits against the previous governor. The primary argument is that the mandatory retirement age represents a violation of their civil rights.
In Driscoll v. Corbett et al., Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas Judge John J. Driscoll, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Sandra Mazer Moss and colleague Judge Joseph D. O’Keefe wanted the mandatory retirement provision nullified and declared invalid, and have the court enjoin the defendants from enforcing the provision.
In Tilson v. Corbett et al., Montgomery County Court Judge Arthur Tilson argued that the constitutional requirement is at odds with the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights. He, too, wanted the provision nullified and declared invalid.
The named defendants in both cases were Gov. Tom Corbett, Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol T. Aichele.
The court — which noted a “degree of discomfort” in presiding over the cases, as its members might benefit from a ruling in favor of the judges — sided with Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who represented Corbett and the other defendants.
Kane’s office argued that the judges’ claims should be presented to the state legislature, which can initiate a remedy in the form of a new constitutional amendment.