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Could Court Controversy Set Voters Against Higher Judicial Age Limit?

A funny thing happened on the way to the referendum.

A year and a half ago, it seemed that getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot would be the hard part. This week, the state Senate cast the final vote in the years-long process to put the question to voters: should the age limit for state judges be changed from 70 to 75 years?

But now, the state’s high court is in turmoil, with one former justice given the heave-ho this year, and another under investigation. The Supreme Court has clashed with the state’s indicted Attorney General Kathleen Kane on her handling of the pornographic and offensive emails she found on her agency’s servers. The latest election of Supreme Court justices saw a tidal wave of campaign spending and negative advertising.

Some wonder if perhaps it’s not the right moment to float a plan to extend jurists’ careers.   

“People might just look at what’s going on currently and just think very short-term and say, 'Hey listen, maybe this isn’t the time,’” said Lynn Marks, head of the reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

She’s not the only one raising that idea.  

“I’m not as convinced as I once was,” said Terry Madonna, Franklin and Marshall College pollster. A year ago, he predicted that voters would approve a constitutional amendment to increase the mandatory retirement age for judicial officers.  

“Generally, you would think with the aging of the population, oh, what’s another five years?” Madonna said. “Now with this anti-establishment mood, and then you have all the controversy with the Supreme Court and the attorney general.”

Madonna said he hasn’t seen statewide polling on changing judges’ mandatory retirement age. He plans to explore the question in his next survey in January.

“I really don’t know,” said Madonna. “We’ll have to see what the voters think.”