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How Will Your Vote Affect The Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Matt Rourke
People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

On Election Day, Pennsylvania voters will decide whether the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court Justices in Pennsylvania should be increased from 70 to 75. 

The judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is staying out of the debate, which has often been contentious. 90.5 WESA's Josh Raulerson spoke with PMC's Maida Milone to unpack the key issues and their political implications.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


MILONE: I think on the pro side, we've all seen that average life expectancy has increased in recent years, as well as medical advances that allow people to remain healthy and productive much longer than they used to. Since age related deterioration is  individual and not necessarily chronological, many judges will remain active and vital past the age of 70.

It's also believed that judicial proficiency is honed by experience, and we all thought that people become experts in time. So permitting them to remain on the bench longer really allows the public to benefit from their increased experience. On the other hand, people who don't support the extension would argue that it is indisputable that our mental capabilities deteriorate with age.

The current senior judge system that we have in place for Pennsylvania already allows older judges to continue their public service and the contribution of their public service after retirement, while at the  same time creating opportunities for new judges to come on the bench. In addition, judges themselves might not recognize this age related mental deterioration, so that when they have to be removed from the bench it can be, I think, embarrassing, and this might undermine public confidence in the judiciary.

Finally, judges should represent the populations they serve. We don't necessarily have the level of diversity on the bench that I think we might like to have. So maintaining the existing mandatory judicial retirement of age 70 will open up more positions and allow for increased diversity on the bench sooner, rather than later.

RAULERSON: What would be the immediate effect of raising the mandatory retirement age? Are we on the verge this Nov. 9, of losing a bunch of 70-year-old judges if this [age extension] isn't approved?

MILONE: Well currently, there is one judge, Tom Saylor who's the chief judge of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who will have to retire at the end of this year if the retirement age isn't extended to 75. And then there's also a second justice, Max Baer, who will have to retire in 2017. 

RAULERSON: Maybe this is just my impression, but [the amendment] seems to be rather contentious in a way that is not going to be immediately apparent to the public as to why that is. Is there a political dimension to this? Is there some partisan angle that's affecting the way it's playing out? 

MILONE: Well, I think this is what's been alleged. The Supreme Court is currently made up of seven justices, five of whom are Democrats and two of whom are Republicans; one of those Republican justices will have to retire at the end of this year. So, if the provision is amended, he would have an additional five years on the bench. The concurrent resolution that was passed by the legislature back in April, is thought to be used by Republicans to keep justice Saylor on the bench an additional five years.

Now, I have to say, candidly, not having a crystal ball, it's not clear to me that the amendment will favor one party over the other in the long run, because while it can keep Justice Saylor on the bench now, it's also going to extend  the terms of the current sitting Democratic justices. It is alleged to be a political issue, and as it's playing out right now, that makes sense, but in the long run, it really cuts both ways.