Proposed Pa. constitutional amendment clouds judges’ retirements
Raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges to 75 from 70 might seem like common sense, given longer average lifespans these days.
But a proposed constitutional amendment pending before legislators could cause complications, depending on the timing of any decision lawmakers make to put the measure before voters for final approval.
Twenty judges turn 70 next year and under current law would have to resign by the end of 2015. Among the 20, elections will be held for 14 Common Pleas seats, five magisterial district judgeships and one seat on Commonwealth Court.
When the retirement age was extended in the past, at least one judge argued he could remain on the bench even after voters elected to replace him. For a while, both judges served.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said lawmakers will have to consider this potential dilemma. He’s unsure what to do about judges who are about to turn 70.
“I guess that’s something we’re going to have to look at, but we haven’t discussed it yet,” Corman said.
In Allegheny County, a half-dozen judges will turn 70 in the next five years, although none is up for retention votes next year. None of the veteran judges could be reached for comment Friday.
The constitutional amendment easily passed both chambers last year. Corman said the timing of a second vote, required before the proposal could go to voters, remains undecided. If it gets second approval, the measure could be on the primary or general election ballot next year and presumably would take effect immediately if voters approve.
“There’s concern, from what I understand through the grapevine, three or four candidates are considering running for my seat,” said Beaver County Common Pleas Judge Gus Kwidis, who turns 70 next month, with seven years left in his term. “So, I mean, it could create a problem.”
Kwidis said he plans to seek senior status and does not intend to challenge any elected successor, if it comes to that. But if others assert their right to stay on, they might have a strong legal case.
“There are only a few ways to remove a judge, and holding an election to replace him is not one of them,” said Duquesne University Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz, an expert on the state constitution. “You’ve elected a judge to a 10-year term. You didn’t elect them to a term ending at the time they got to the retirement age.”
When voters amended the state Constitution in 2001 to make retirement mandatory by the end of the calendar year in which the judge turns 70, rather than on their actual birthdays, a Fayette County judge decided to stay longer, even though his replacement had been nominated.
In that case, the Legislature, with the governor’s support, passed a law allowing an extra judgeship in Fayette County until the next judicial vacancy occurred, and elevating the nominated judge to the bench. In theory, a similar situation could occur next year for 11 judgeships, if a constitutional amendment is approved in November.
The remaining nine who turn 70 next year are in the last year of their terms and won’t be eligible to run in the 2015 primary or, as in the case of three county judges, seek retention as the new year begins.
“I suppose that no matter what they do or how they do it, somebody’s going to be caught in the middle,” said Erie County Common Pleas Judge Shad Connelly, who turns 70 in February and whose term expires this year. “I suppose that’s going to be pretty much inevitable, especially under the present systems we have.”
Lawmakers could avoid potential complications by delaying an amendment until 2016, when judicial races are not on the ballot in Pennsylvania. Also, voters will fill three vacancies on the state Supreme Court in 2015 and, if Democrats take two or three of them, the Republican-controlled Legislature might not want to lock in those justices for an extra five years.
But, said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery County, the constitutional amendment’s prime sponsor: “You don’t change the constitution for short-term or political gain. It should be something that benefits the system as a whole for a long time.”
Common Pleas judges in Pennsylvania are elected to 10-year terms and paid between $169,541 and $195,309 a year until age 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.
Staff writer Adam Brandolph and The Associated Press contributed to this report.