Pa. lawmakers move to delay vote on judicial retirement age

Chief Justice Saylor
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor turns 70 in December.

HARRISBURG - Three weeks before the polls open, Pennsylvania legislators want to halt plans to let primary voters decide whether to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.

Republicans who control both chambers want to move the question from the April 26 primary to the Nov. 8 ballot.

A key House committee passed a resolution Tuesday to postpone the ballot question, and the matter could come up for a vote on the chamber's floor as early as Wednesday. The Senate is expected to follow suit.

The sudden move so close to the election could leave in the lurch county election offices, including in Philadelphia, that have already printed and distributed absentee ballots and programmed voting machines to include the question.

GOP legislators say they want the delay because they are unhappy with the question's wording on the primary ballot, which they say could confuse voters because it's too long and convoluted. They also say voters who are not affiliated with a political party - and thus can't vote for a candidate in a primary - may not know that they can show up at their polling site just to vote on the ballot question.

"It is in the voters' best interest to have the most voters in Pennsylvania making this decision," said Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery), who has championed the years-long push to get the question on the ballot. "Believe me, in a presidential year - especially a presidential year like this one - there will be many more voters at the general election than at the primary."

Others disagreed, saying what may confuse people is having them vote on the question this month - only to learn that the vote will not count.

"At this extraordinarily late date, to thwart the will of an electorate . . . it would offer utter confusion and be stepping beyond our authority," said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Montgomery).

Changing the mandatory retirement age for judges requires an amendment to the constitution, which means the measure had to pass both legislative chambers in two consecutive sessions to even appear on the ballot. Its supporters note that people are living longer and more productive lives. And the nation's most prominent court, the U.S. Supreme Court, has no mandatory retirement age.

If approved by voters, the new retirement age would apply to all of the state's approximately 1,000 judges. For the state Supreme Court, its impact would be immediate: Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Max Baer turn 70 in the next two years.

Republican legislators last month sued to change the wording of the ballot question but were denied.

Wolf administration officials, who wrote the wording, on Tuesday said they had not yet taken a position on the push to postpone the ballot question. But they noted the required advertising for the questions on this month's primary ballot cost several million dollars.

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk