“Lessons From Pa.’s Judicial Retirement Age Ballot Fiasco”

Howard Bashman:

s polling expert Berwood Yost of Franklin & Marshall College ­persuasively demonstrated in an essay that The Philadelphia Inquirer published last week, the current phrasing of the ballot ­question is misleading insofar as it omits that Pennsylvania’s current judicial retirement age is 70. As currently phrased, voters are likely to understand the proposed amendment as imposing a retirement age of 75 in place of no currently applicable judicial retirement age.

As Yost’s op-ed demonstrated, 64 percent of Pennsylvania voters surveyed in September preferred enacting mandatory judicial retirement at 75 years old in place of no existing limit. However, when ­voters were asked if the judicial retirement age should be raised to 75 from its current limit of 70, only 39 to 45 percent of voters ­favored the proposal….

Of course, raising the judicial retirement age would apply to all judges, not only Saylor. As a result, the five Democratic ­justices would also be able to serve five extra years before mandatory retirement would apply to them. Why keeping Saylor on a court that seems assured of having a large Democratic majority for Saylor’s ­remaining time in office is of such ­importance to Republican legislators is a question whose answer is far from readily apparent.

Additionally, it is a commonly accepted fact that Pennsylvania’s legislators ­oppose abolishing partisan judicial elections because the political parties are benefitted in various ways when judicial candidates must run in partisan elections. Once an individual becomes a judge, however, to remain in office he or she must win more than 50 percent of the vote in nonpartisan retention elections every 10 years.

Increasing Pennsylvania’s judicial ­retirement age is thus likely to result in fewer and less frequent partisan elections to fill open judicial seats. If the existence of partisan judicial elections in fact financially benefits political parties in Pennsylvania, it would seem that those parties would be inflicting financial harm on themselves by causing such elections to happen less frequently.

It would be truly fitting that a deceptive ballot question intended to obtain voter ­approval of a judicial retirement age increase by depriving voters of that very fact, spearheaded by Republican legislators with some Democratic approval, in fact cemented a Democratic majority at the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for many more years and financially harmed both political parties.

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