Move advances to extend Pa. judges' retirement age

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HARRISBURG -- When the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended in the late 1960s to require the retirement of judges at age 70, life expectancy in the United States was not much more than that.

But decades later, people are living longer, and there is movement in the Legislature to allow judges to serve longer as well.

"I think it's likely that older judges have more experience and more wisdom than younger people," said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, who sponsored a proposal to move the retirement age to 75. "So therefore it makes a lot of sense to try to keep older, wiser jurists on the bench longer."

Amending the state Constitution is a lengthy process, so any change would take at least a couple of years. But the proposal is on its way. It passed the Senate 44-6 last week, after clearing the House 157-44 in June.

To take effect, the same language would need to pass both chambers in the next two-year legislative session, which begins in 2015, and then receive approval by the voters in a statewide referendum.

The 70-year mark selected at the constitutional convention in 1967 and 1968 was not meant to necessarily stand forever, said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law.

"It was very clear that they just wanted to come up with an age that made sense at the time and recognized that it might have to be changed in the future as life expectancies changed," he said. "Seventy was a rather ripe old age in 1968."

In 1970, life expectancy at birth stood at 70.8 years for the total U.S. population, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By 2010, it had risen to 78.7 years.

Mr. Gormley, who teaches state constitutional law, said the 70-year retirement is particularly limiting to women, who on average live longer than men. Life expectancy for U.S. women in 2010 was 81 years, compared with 76.2 years for men, according to the national statistics.

More than half the states have a retirement age for at least part of the judiciary, typically 70 or slightly older, according to Gavel to Gavel, a National Center for State Courts newsletter.

The 70-year-old rule would require five of the seven Supreme Court justices to retire in the coming five years (assuming some win retention).

Ms. Harper, the bill's sponsor, noted that the judiciary has a procedure -- through the judicial discipline system -- that allows it to remove judges who are found to be incompetent.

After judges retire, they can hear cases as senior judges who receive assignments for periods of time. Their compensation is capped; when combined with pension payments, it cannot exceed the salary of a sitting judge, said Art Heinz, a spokesman for the courts.

Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said he voted against the proposal because of other concerns about the judiciary, such as the cost of employing senior judges. But he supports increasing the retirement age.

Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141.

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