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Politics & Government

Plan Before State Senate to Raise Judges' Age Limit

A plan to bump up the mandatory retirement age for state judges is nearing the next step on the long path to changing the state constitution.

Pennsylvania's state judges are forced into retirement at the age of 70, with a few exceptions for those who are younger than 78 and want to keep serving on a per diem basis.

A plan that has passed the House would hike judges' mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75 years. It's poised for a Senate vote, after receiving the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. One of the panel's members registered his initial discomfort with the idea, but other than that, the measure was widely supported.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has been doing just fine without a mandatory retirement age.

"You know, if you're 70 years old, you're sort of one of the youngsters on the court," Leach said.

The same tension was noted by a federal judge, facing no mandatory retirement, who threw out a challenge to the age limit for state judges last month. The judge said because the rule is written into the state constitution, it will have to be changed by state lawmakers with a constitutional amendment. If passed by the full Senate, the amendment must be approved again by the Legislature next session and by voters in a referendum.

The proposal's sponsor, Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery), said she got the idea for the bill from talking to a couple of local judges facing imminent, undesired retirement.

"They're great guys," said Harper. "The longer they were on the bench, the better they got."

Changing the mandated retirement age is something of an urgent matter for many justices. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille is about a year away from his 70th birthday, and has the Republican Party's endorsement in the retention election he's facing next month.

But Harper said it would take too long to rescue Castille from forced retirement.

"Because this is constitutional, and it will take so long to get done if it happens at all, he would already be retired and not subject to it," Harper said, "as are the two judges that actually inspired me to introduce the bill."