Pa. Supreme Court won't reconsider ballot question on judge retirements

Chief Justice Saylor
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, who turns 70 later this year, recused himself from the decision.

HARRISBURG -- A controversial ballot question about when state judges must retire will appear on the November ballot.

For now.

The Supreme Court on Friday denied a request to keep alive a challenge to the wording of a referendum to determine how long judges can serve.

At issue was a change to the ballot question this past spring by the Republican-controlled legislature. The initial language -- which had already been printed on primary ballots -- asked voters if they would approve raising the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.

But weeks before the primary, the legislature moved to change the question's language and delay the referendum until November.

The new wording asks voters only if they approve requiring judges to retire at age 75 -- leaving out that the current retirement age is 70 and that voters actually are being asked to extend it by five years.

Former Justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr. and Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague sued this summer in Commonwealth Court, calling the new wording "deceitful." They argued that it was designed to make voters think that there is no current retirement age and that what they are being asked to do is set one at 75.

A 3-3 split decision this month by the high court left the ruling intact and the reworded question on November's ballot.

On Friday, the justices rejected by a 4-2 vote the plaintiffs' request to let Commonwealth Court reconsider the case.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor recused himself from both decisions. Saylor turns 70 this year, and so would be immediately impacted by the outcome of the referendum.

In an interview Friday, Sprague said he and the former justices intend to refile the case Monday in Commonwealth Court.

"This matter is a fundamental issue that the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve to have decided by a court," said Sprague, whose Philadelphia law firm, Sprague & Sprague, brought the challenge. "And, in view of the failure of the Supreme Court to decide it, it should be decided then by the Commonwealth Court."

He added, "It is clear to everybody that the current ballot question is intentionally deceptive, and the public deserves a court ruling on this matter."

Drew Crompton, the top lawyer for Senate Republicans who championed the language change, said Sprague's promise to refile the case will result in "a colossal waste of taxpayer resources."

"This would actually be a third bite at the apple," Crompton said, noting that the Supreme Court has twice delivered defeats to the challenge. "He's 0 for 2, and now he wants to be 0 for 3."

In the majority opinion released Friday, the four justices noted that it was Sprague's side that asked the high court to take on the matter on an emergency basis this past summer. When the high court accepts, the justices said, it does so with an eye toward imposing "a final order in the matter."

Still, Sprague said that the high court's the order didn't specifically preclude him, Castille, and Zappala from filing a new challenge.

"They never said we cannot refile," Sprague said. "The bottom line is, the courts cannot escape having to take the responsibility for deciding this issue."

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