Pennsylvania voters to decide mandatory judicial retirement age

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | January 30th, 2016 7:21 am

Currently, judges must retire at age 70

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Judge Thomas Burke Thomas Burke

The way the law stands now, Luzerne County Judge Thomas Burke can’t remain on the bench full-time after Dec. 31 because he will be the mandatory retirement age of 70.

But that could change because Pennsylvania voters in the April 26 primary will approve or reject a proposed state constitution amendment increasing the judicial retirement age to 75.

Burke, who turns 70 this December, said he would “very much like” to complete his current 10-year term, slated to run through 2020, but will respect the will of the people.

“It’s their government,” Burke said. “I have great faith in the electorate being informed on this matter and will be guided by their wisdom in weighing and deciding the issue.”

Supporters of the ballot question, which was approved by state legislators, say courts will benefit from keeping more experienced judges on the bench full-time.

Judges can switch to senior status after mandatory retirement, but they must remain part-time.

Critics maintain a retirement age of 70 promotes the election of new judges and reduces the possibility an unfit judge will remain on the bench too long.

Burke said many aging adults have become more active and are living longer. Several 2016 presidential contenders are approaching or over age 70, he noted.

“Experience counts,” Burke said.

Burke has served on the county Court of Common Pleas since 1998 and oversaw court operations as president judge from 2010 through 2014. He has received praise for improvements to the county court system in the aftermath of a judicial corruption scandal that led to charges against three former judges and the former court administrator.

Burke not alone

Twenty judges in Pennsylvania are facing mandatory retirement at the end of this year, said Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The proposed retirement age increase would apply to all judges and justices in the state, including Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices, magisterial district judges — known as justices of the peace in the constitution — and judges in of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and county Courts of Common Pleas.

The ballot question does not amend any other constitutional provisions regarding the qualification, election, tenure or compensation of judges.

Judges must retire on the last day of the calendar year in which they reach the mandatory retirement age.

All voters — not just Republicans and Democrats — will be permitted to vote on the retirement age ballot question, officials said.

Discussions about increasing or eliminating mandatory retirement ages are taking place across the nation in courts and other professions in light of increased life expectancy and better health, including mental health, said Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philadelphia-based statewide nonprofit and nonpartisan court reform organization.

There is no mandatory retirement age for other elected officials in Pennsylvania or for federal judges, Marks said Friday.

“We’re pleased the issue of whether to raise the mandatory retire age will go before the voters and look forward to a robust dialogue,” Marks said. “I think it’s an important issue to have a public debate on.”

The proposed amendment is a compromise compared to bills that have pushed to eliminate the retirement age altogether, she said.

“Raising the age to 75 allows Pennsylvanians to preserve some of the knowledge and skills that come with experience that are important for our justice system as well as creating opportunities for younger, qualified individuals to bring new ideas and energy to the bench,” Marks said.

Marks urges primary election voters to focus on the pros and cons of a forced retirement, not the performance of individual judges. The judicial discipline system can address complaints if individual judges are unfit to serve due to performance issues or decreased mental acuity, she said.

She declined to predict the outcome of the ballot question, saying there are too many variables.

“I would not be surprised if negative headlines about certain judges would cause people to vote against it. I really hope people look at the whole policy issue in general,” she said.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.