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
“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
“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.