Let voters decide judge retirements

The state Supreme Court issued a 6-0 ruling Monday dismissing a challenge to the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 for Pennsylvania judges.

Good. To do otherwise would have been an abuse of power.

In what appears to be a close examination of the state Constitution, the high court concluded that the age retirement is not unconstitutional, and if a change is desired, a process exists for that pursuit.

The current age restriction was initiated by lawmakers during a constitutional convention in 1968 and ratified by voters afterward. Bills have since been introduced in both chambers of the state Legislature to increase the age to 75, an option that would put the topic up for debate and allow voters to decide.

All six members of the state’s high court agreed that the challenging judges should pursue an amendment to the state’s constitution as a way to address their complaint. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane took that position in court where she represented Gov. Tom Corbett, Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol T. Aichele.

The challenging judges, who currently sit on a variety of state courts and earn between $169,541 and $195,309, argued during a May hearing that the retirement cutoff they face is based on a fallacy that after age 70, judges become less mentally and physically capable and more prone to debilities like dementia.

But that’s not the only factor to consider, the state Supreme Court concluded.

In a supportive opinion, Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote that the argument must go beyond whether someone older than 70 is mentally and physically capable of being a judge. The cutoff, Eakin said also establishes a “concrete limit” on the powers of judges by requiring them to step down.

The National Center for State Courts names Pennsylvania as one of 33 states setting a mandatory retirement age, and it seems like a good idea. With few options available to remove judges from the bench, the common one being a retention vote that surfaces once every 10 years, it’s not unusual for some judges to cling to office longer than they should. And those judges willing and able to serve after the age of 70 have the option of doing so through senior judge status – although at lesser pay.

Nevertheless, if the judges can convince the lawmakers that the age limit should be raised, the decision should fall to Pennsylvania voters for a ruling.