HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania voters will decide on Nov. 8 whether to amend the state constitution to let judges remain on the bench until the end of the year in which they turn 75, five years longer than currently allowed.
The proposed amendment has passed the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and appeared on the spring primary ballot, but at the last minute, lawmakers decided to essentially invalidate those votes.
Details about the ballot referendum:
THE STATE’S JUDICIARY
The mandatory retirement age applies to the roughly 1,000 justices, judges and district judges that are currently serving in Pennsylvania. They can apply for senior judge status upon retirement, and if they’re certified they are assigned on an as-needed basis.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE SUPREME COURT
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, one of two Republicans on the seven-justice state Supreme Court, holds that position by virtue of seniority. He turns 70 in December and will have to retire at the end of that month, if the ballot question fails. Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, is next in line to be chief justice, and he turns 70 in December 2017. If he retires, the chief justice job would go to Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat, assuming she runs for retention in 2017 and is returned for another 10-year term. Todd turns 59 on Oct. 15. If the amendment passes and Saylor wants to remain on the bench, he also would face a retention vote in 2017.
OTHER JUDGES AFFECTED
The state court system says there are 18 others who must retire by the end of December if the ballot question fails: 13 common pleas court judges, three magisterial district judges and two judges on Philadelphia’s municipal court.
SPRING VOTE DELAYED
Weeks before the constitutional amendment was scheduled to appear on the April spring primary ballot, state lawmakers hastily pushed through a resolution delaying it until November and changing the wording so that it removed any reference to the existing mandatory retirement age of 70. That prompted a lawsuit by three Democratic state senators, who argued the wording changes were designed to make the measure more likely to pass.
Supporters of the change said the primary ballot phrasing was needlessly confusing and that more people would vote in the fall. A Republican judge on Commonwealth Court upheld the Legislature’s action before the primary, and a three-judge panel later said the delay and rewording were legal.
The resolution passed too late in the process for officials to prevent the question, including the current retirement age, from appearing on ballots that are printed in advance. The resolution directed that Secretary of State Pedro Cortes not tally the referendum votes, but unofficial returns published on the State Department’s website indicated about 2.4 million people voted on the question during the primary, defeating it narrowly, 51 percent to 49 percent.
A SECOND LAWSUIT
In July, two retired Supreme Court justices and a Philadelphia lawyer sued, arguing it was deceptive to take out the reference to the existing age. They said removing the current retirement age will lead some people to mistakenly conclude that support for the referendum will impose the state’s first-ever judicial retirement age, when it actually adds extends the age by five years.
The Supreme Court deadlocked 3 to 3, with Saylor staying out of it, a decision that had the effect of clearing the way for the ballot question to appear in November. The justices and lawyer have recently filed another legal action against the current wording, before Commonwealth Court.