Mandatory judicial retirement age debated
HARRISBURG - A House committee plans to consider a bill to increase the mandatory retirement age for Pennsylvania judges next week as the state's top court weighs a legal challenge of the current quitting date of 70 years.
This proposed state constitutional amendment to increase the retirement age from 70 to 75 for state justices, Common Pleas Court judges and magisterial district judges is on the agenda for a Tuesday meeting of the Judiciary Committee.
The 70-year requirement has been in effect as part of the constitution since 1968, but the amendment sponsor, Rep. Kate Harper, R-61, Blue Bell, said average life expectancy has increased from age 70 to age 78 since then and the number of people living into their 80s and 90s is increasing.
"I have a hard time believing that having a 71st birthday suddenly renders everyone incompetent to be a judge," she said.
Debate at a recent Judiciary panel hearing on judicial retirement focused on the potential benefits of keeping experienced judges on the bench beyond 70 and potential drawbacks of judges serving when they aren't fit to due to dementia or other reasons.
The Judicial Conduct Board and the Court of Judicial Discipline have the authority to remove judges of any age who are no longer capable of serving, said Harper.
"Changing the retirement age to 75 strikes the perfect balance," said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, in testimony. "It adjusts the mandatory retirement age to reflect the fact that men and women live longer and are mentally and physically productive longer. At the same time, it establishes a firm retirement age so that there is an automatic process for judicial retirement."
As a proposed constitutional amendment, Harper's bill would have to be passed by two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and approved by statewide voters.
Increasing the mandatory retirement age could impact the current use of senior judges to hear cases. Senior judges can work through the age of 78, an age limit set by the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the court heard legal arguments last week on a lawsuit by several judges challenging the 70-age limit on grounds it's discriminatory and violates the state constitution.
The court's decision to hear the case has drawn criticism from Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. He has described it as potentially setting aside the constitution by judicial fiat.
"For those who believe that the age restriction is subject to fair debate, the proper method is to amend Pennsylvania's constitution," he wrote.
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