HARRISBURG – After a protracted legal battle regarding the proper wording of a ballot question related to the mandatory retirement age for judges in Pennsylvania, voters in the commonwealth narrowly passed an increase in the retirement age to 75 from 70.
The question, as it was worded on the Nov. 8 general election ballot, read: “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?”
The ballot for the primary election in May included different wording, telling voters that the current, at the time, mandatory retirement age was 70. Opponents to the new language argued that only including the proposed age of 75 was misleading and that the new wording was designed to promote passage of the amendment.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered on an emergency basis a lawsuit challenging the language to be used in the ballot question. However, the court was deadlocked on the issue, meaning the question would appear without the mention of the previous retirement age of 70.
The lawsuit was filed by former justices Ronald D. Castile and Stephen Zappala Sr., along with attorney Richard A. Sprague. They argued in the complaint that the language might lead voters to believe that they are being asked to impose a term limit on judges, rather than granting a five-year extension of the current retirement age.
Under the amendment passed at the general election, 19 current judges, including Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Saylor, will avoid impending mandatory retirement for up to five years.
Maida Milone, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC), said PMC does not know if the wording factored into the ultimate outcome, or if more voters in Pennsylvania actually favored an extended retirement age.
Milone said PMC did not take a position for or against the ballot referendum.
“With so much controversy around the wording of the referendum, we believed it was important for someone to focus on the substantive issue and provide information to voters so that they could make informed decisions; that someone was PMC,” Milone told the Pennsylvania Record.
“Though our resources are limited, we disseminated the arguments for and against the extension of the mandatory retirement to as many outlets as possible.”
However, Milone said PMC contended that the referendum language could have been placed in a clearer context.
“It could have been made explicit that the referendum was asking for an extension, not the initial imposition, of the judicial retirement age at 75," Milone said.
Still, Milone said she was not really surprised that the amendment passed, and she said the newly adopted amendment could be good for Pennsylvania.
“Now that the voters have spoken, we believe that the stability in the composition of the courts that will result may well be a good thing for the commonwealth in these politically charged times,” she said.
According to Milone, a voter referendum is one step in the process for amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, which also includes approval of the issue in two consecutive sessions of the Legislature.
“At the end of the day, we now have an extended judicial mandatory retirement age, and only time will tell if all the political wrangling benefited one or the other political party, or ultimately will benefit the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Milone said.