Pa. court: GOP right to challenge ballot question on judges' retirement age

HARRISBURG - The GOP-controlled legislature was within its powers when it approved an eleventh-hour delay - and rewording - of a ballot question raising the mandatory retirement age for judges, a Commonwealth Court panel has ruled.

A three-judge panel found that the legislature acted properly when it approved the delay just weeks before the April 26 primary, when the question was initially scheduled to appear on the ballot.

Legislators sought the delay because they said they believed the wording was obscure and confusing. The question will now appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The judges, in their decision Wednesday, noted that the legislature has "exclusive authority" in determining how and when voters can cast ballots on constitutional amendments. In this case, upping the retirement age for judges from 70, to 75, requires a change to the state Constitution.

Delaying the ballot question until the November election "was a valid exercise of the General Assembly's exclusive power . . . to prescribe both the time at which and manner by which" voters are to decide the issue, wrote Judge Kevin Brobson.

Brobson also noted that the legislature's decision to delay the ballot question was approved by the Wolf administration and the state Attorney General's office.

A spokesman for Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, one of three Democratic senators who sued Republican legislative leaders over the delay, said on Thursday that an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

Matt Haverstick, the Philadelphia attorney who represented top Senate Republicans in the lawsuit, countered: "All three branches of state government seem to agree that moving the question to the fall is the right thing to do, so I'm not sure why they keep resisting."

The delay, pushed by Republicans and backed by a number of Democrats, was controversial.

Because the legislature approved the delay was approved so close to the primary election, the ballot question actually appeared on the ballot in many counties. More than two million voters cast ballots, rejecting the increase in the judicial retirement age.

GOP legislators said the delay was necessary because the Department of State, which oversees elections, used awkward and confusing phrasing when crafting the initial ballot question.

That wording was: "Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and justices of the peace (known as magisterial district judges) be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years, instead of the current requirement that they be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70?"

The new wording the legislature came up with: "Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?"

Leach and other critics have said the new wording purposely masks what voters are really being asked to do - raise the retirement age - and instead makes it sound as if Pennsylvania is instituting a mandatory retirment age for the first time.

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

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