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Pennsylvania one step closer to raising judicial retirement age to 75

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 5:15 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The state Senate on Tuesday took a major step toward raising the mandatory retirement age for justices and judges from 70 to 75, approving a House-passed bill to change the state Constitution.

The Senate approved the bill 44-6.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the legislation needs approval from both chambers in the 2014-15 session. It then would be placed on the ballot for voters' consideration. A constitutional amendment doesn't need the governor's signature.

The earliest public vote would be November 2015, said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial watchdog group. The group has not taken a position on the question of mandatory retirement for judges.

People are living longer with “higher mental acuity,” Marks said. “It's a discussion under way in many professions.”

Federal judges face no age limit. In the Supreme Court, former Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes served until 1932 when he was almost 91 years old. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens retired in 2010 at age 90.

Supporters of mandatory retirement ages say it makes room for “fresh blood” on the bench and that mental capabilities can deteriorate with age. Opponents argue that age is arbitrary. Each decision should be voluntary and there's no guarantee younger judges will perform better, according to an analysis Marks' group presented to the House Judiciary Committee in April.

In 1968, when the mandatory retirement age was placed in the constitution, life expectancy was 70, and today it is 78, said Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County.

Pennsylvania is one of 33 states with a mandatory retirement age, typically varying from 70 to 75.

“We do ourselves a disservice by forcing retirement (of judges) so early,” said John Burkoff, a law school professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think it would make a lot more sense to let judges stay on the bench longer, at least until the point where they actually show signs that they can no longer do the job effectively.”

So-called senior, or part-time, judges in Pennsylvania can serve until age 78. They are retired judges, paid $532 in daily compensation.

In 2012, the state paid 86 senior judges $11 million in combined pension payments and income, according to a study this month by the Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille defended the practice, saying it saves taxpayers' money because it's cheaper than creating full-time judgeships.

Castille turns 70 in March and must retire by Dec. 31, 2014.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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