Baer: A Wolf vs. GOP wordplay scuffle

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On a recent Sunday, GOP Senate leaders Jake Corman, left, and Joe Scarnati filed an "emergency application for extraordinary relief" with the state Supreme Court.

YOU'RE PROBABLY aware Gov. Wolf and Republican lawmakers aren't exactly besties.

They fight over taxes, spending, budgets, no budgets, appointments. Pick an issue: They disagree.

Now they're fighting over words for an April 26 ballot question on whether to hike judges' mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75.

Yes! Let's give those at the top of our stellar judiciary more time to muck around, get caught in scandals, and resign with pensions à la Justices Seamus McCaffery and now possibly J. Michael Eakin.

The ballot wordplay may sound silly. But it's really political spin-the-bottle involving some partisan kisses and some public kiss-offs.

On a recent Sunday, GOP Senate leaders Jake Corman and Joe Scarnati filed an "emergency application for extraordinary relief" with the state Supreme Court.

Actually, Center City Philadelphia law firm Kleinbard L.L.C. filed. Why use Senate lawyers when you can charge taxpayers for big-city expertise?

Anyway, "emergency application" filed on a Sunday sounds pretty serious, no?

Well, the GOP says the court should make the ballot question simpler by changing wording the suit calls "confusing, distracting, and misleading."

For example, the question written by the Wolf administration starts, "Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court . . ." and other judges are retired the last day of the calendar year they turn 75 instead of 70?

The suit says people might think this means the U.S. Supreme Court (where members are appointed for life), since that court's been in the news, what with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the partisan fight to replace him.

To me, this suggests Republicans believe voters' attention spans will fade or vanish while reading the eight words between "Pennsylvania Constitution" and "Supreme Court."

Or that voters generally are just dim-witted (a thought, given our electeds, I don't entirely dismiss).

The lawsuit also wants to cut language explaining that justices of the peace are known as "magisterial district judges," and noting the current retirement age is 70.

Too much info. Too wordy.

The GOP suggests, "Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices, judges and justices of the peace be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75?"

There's a theory the GOP wants the simplest possible question so voters say "yes" in order to protect the now-sole Republican on the high court, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, who turns 70 in December.

But who knows? Our judiciary hasn't engendered much public confidence. And similar age-extension efforts flopped in other states: Hawaii and Louisiana in 2014, New York in 2013, Ohio in 2011.

In most states, judicial retirement age is 70. Vermont's is 90. I don't know: clean, green living, no big cities?

A response to the GOP lawsuit, filed by (try not to laugh) the Office of Attorney General, argues the administration's language is fine and the GOP's too late.

It says Republicans should have named all 67 county boards of elections and filed much sooner to seek changes.

Also, to re-advertise a rewritten amendment, as required by the Constitution, could cost taxpayers $1.5 million; this after already twice advertising the amendment at a taxpayer cost of $2.6 million.

Hey, what's a little money if it means older judges?

Oh, and if you're wondering how our Supreme Court can make any decision on an issue that directly impacts each member's bench longevity and bank account - they get $203,409; Saylor gets $209,329 - it's because they can.

You may recall the court ruled judges could keep the 2005 pay raise even after the legislature repealed it. The doctrine of "indispensability," or the "rule of necessity," allows judges of the highest court to take cases, no matter apparent conflict, if such cases otherwise would not be heard. Nice, huh?

So, another day, another fight, another bill for taxpayers.

Maybe someone should file an emergency application for extraordinary relief.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer