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Veteran Allegheny County Common Pleas judges dislike forced exits

| Monday, June 10, 2013, 12:50 a.m.

After two decades on the bench, Allegheny County Judge David R. Cashman, 66, said his mind is still sharp, and he continues to dispose of about 1,500 cases a year.

Under state law, Cashman of Mt. Lebanon must retire as a full-time Common Pleas judge when he turns 70.

“I'm kind of caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Cashman, whose term doesn't technically expire until 2021. “I knew 70 was the magic number, but at the same time you don't want to retire until you don't want to do it anymore or until it's made known that you can't do it anymore.”

Cashman is one of seven Common Pleas judges in the county who will be 70 within the next five years and must retire unless the Legislature amends the Constitution or the state Supreme Court rules the mandatory retirement age unconstitutional.

The state's highest court is mulling the question because six judges sued Gov. Tom Corbett and other state officials last year over the requirement. Justices heard arguments in the case last month.

The judges — including Westmoreland County Judge John J. Driscoll, now a senior judge — argue the mandatory retirement age is discriminatory.

The state Attorney General's Office contends age-based classifications are constitutional as long as they're made on a “rational basis” and wants the justices to throw out the lawsuit. The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling by year's end.

Driscoll did not return calls but told the Tribune-Review last year after his attorney filed the lawsuit that he joined it because he loved his work.

Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, said the lawsuit is frivolous and he believes the justices will dismiss it.

“The idea that a provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution violates another provision of the Constitution makes no sense,” he said. “It's utterly ridiculous.”

Judges in Pennsylvania are elected to 10-year terms and paid between $169,541 and $195,309 a year until they turn 70. They can work as senior judges until they are 78 but receive no paid sick days, paid vacation or life insurance benefits, and their $534-per-day pay plus pension can't exceed $169,541.

Four of the seven Common Pleas judges in Beaver County and one of the 10 Westmoreland County judges will turn 70 within the next five years; the mandatory retirement age also affects district judges.

“There are many, many judges who can perform as well at age 70 as they did at age 60,” said Beaver County President Judge John D. McBride, 65, of Beaver. He said senior judges “can handle a full caseload.”

Some judges said they believe the mandatory retirement age should be raised given research that shows people are living longer. When legislators set the age in 1968, the average American's life expectancy was about 70. Today, it is 78, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It's a different world these days,” said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, 66, of Mt. Lebanon, whose 10-year term expires in 2019.

A bill pending in the state House would raise the mandatory retirement age to 75, but it wouldn't go into effect until two sessions of the General Assembly approved and voters adopted it.

“I'll just do whatever my bosses tell me,” said Allegheny County Judge Paul F. Lutty Jr., 67, of Upper St. Clair, whose term expires in 2019.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philadelphia-based court-reform advocacy group, hasn't taken a position on the mandatory retirement age, said Lynn Marks, the organization's executive director. If a judge's mental capacity diminishes over time, there are measures in place to remove unfit judges from the bench, regardless of age, Marks said.

“Whether mandatory retirement provisions are sustained, increased or eliminated, the most important considerations are the quality and reputation of the judiciary,” she said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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