Inquirer Editorial: Court guilty of age denial?

Chief Justice Ronald Castille
Chief Justice Ronald Castille
Posted: April 18, 2013

In an age of long-term unemployment, crippled investments, and actuarial uncertainty, many Americans have discovered that they no longer get to choose their own retirement date. But the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will have none of that.

The state's constitution requires judges to retire at the age of 70. But being at the mercy of larger forces may be, in the justices' estimation, for the little people. It certainly looks that way based on the hoary high court's fast-tracking of two challenges to the constitutional retirement mandate.

The court recently took the rare step of reaching down from its lofty perch to bypass a lower court and schedule the cases for prompt hearing next month. And it's easy to guess why the Supremes might feel this matter requires quick but delicate handling. Chief Justice Ronald Castille is 69 and running for retention this year, which would give him another 10-year term on the court - if not for the pesky mandatory retirement clause. And three of his fellow justices will also become septuagenarians within the next five years.

Judges can't always avoid ruling on cases that may affect them. But this threatens to be yet another instance of the Pennsylvania justices moving aggressively and unnecessarily to meddle in a matter of direct and personal interest. Especially in the wake of scandals ranging from Philadelphia Traffic Court to the Supreme Court itself, they should tread cautiously.

The judicial retirement age is set unambiguously by the Pennsylvania Constitution. Perhaps it should be raised to reflect lengthening life spans, but that could and should be done through the constitutional amendment process. In fact, legislators in Harrisburg are already considering bills to alter the provision; a hearing on one of them is scheduled for today. Moreover, a parallel federal court case that could provide a more impartial result has been put on hold while the state case proceeds.

A majority of states, including New Jersey, have mandatory judicial retirement ages, and for good reason. With few other mechanisms in place to remove judges from the bench, some are bound to cling to office longer than they should. And although Pennsylvania judges can be fired by the voters, they rarely lose their up-or-down retention elections, which fall far short of robust, informed exercises in democracy.

In a recent commentary in the Morning Call of Allentown, Robert Heim, a Philadelphia lawyer representing 11 lower-court judges who object to the retirement mandate, compared their challenge somewhat grandiosely to a series of landmark civil rights cases. And he noted that his aging clients "are not willing to wait for the uncertain political prospects of a constitutional amendment."

Can you imagine subjecting the state's esteemed jurists to the stinging indignity of waiting around for a process as cumbersome and glacial as lawmaking? It's almost like saying they're just like everyone else.

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