Suit Can’t Keep Older Judges on the PA Bench

     (CN) – Pennsylvania’s mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges does not violate the state’s constitution, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled.
     In 1968, Pennsylvania voters ratified an amendment to the state’s constitution that sets the retirement age for state judges at age 70. After age 70, former judges may choose to serve as senior judges, for which they are paid at a per diem rate of $522 per day, but they do not receive sick days, life insurance, or pay for chambers work.
     Last year, a group of senior judges challenged the constitutional amendment, claiming it violates their rights by forcing their retirement, and discriminates against them based on their age.
     They said that Pennsylvania’s rising case load requires the service of older judges to ensure speedy justice, and that “simply putting judges over seventy on ‘senior status’ does not prevent the harm caused by incapacitated judges, nor does it insulate senior judges from the embarrassment of removal.”
     The judges also claimed that an increase in life-expectancy over the last 50 years, and decrease in dementia, has made it “untenable to rely on stereotypes relating to aging to force Pennsylvania’s judges to retire against their will.”
     Accepting the judges’ petition for extraordinary relief, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case without waiting for the lower courts to rule.
     But the Supreme Court ruled against the judges last week, saying, “We do not believe that the charter’s framers regarded an immutable ability to continue in public service as a commissioned judge beyond seventy years of age as being within the scope of the inherent rights of mankind.”
     The 29-page opinion said the judges are theoretically correct that a constitutional amendment could violate rights granted by the Constitution itself.
     But, “the mandatory retirement provision for judicial officers is subject to deferential, rational basis review under both equal protection and due process, and it satisfies that standard,” Justice Thomas Saylor said, writing for the court.
     Saylor acknowledged that societal norms have changed since the amendment was ratified, but told the judges that they should seek a Constitutional amendment rather than a court order.
     “Although certain societal circumstances may have changed since 1968 when the challenged provision was added to the Constitution – and, indeed, some of the original justifications for mandatory retirement may not have reflected the most fair or even the most beneficial public policy – the proper approach of conforming the Constitution more closely with petitioners’ vision of how experiential changes should be taken into account is to pursue further amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Saylor said.
     The high court did not consider the judges’ claims of age discrimination, because both the federal and state anti-age-discrimination statutes include exclusions for “bona fide occupational qualifications.”

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