Fair Courts E-lert: Pennsylvania Upholds Mandatory Retirement Age

June 27, 2013


Pennsylvania Upholds Mandatory Retirement Age
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld a state constitutional amendment that requires judges in the state to retire at age 70. According to the Patriot News, “Even if it might not entirely reflect the realities of today's society, the retirement mandate was properly added to the state constitution by the voters 45 years ago, the state Supreme Court concluded in a unanimous ruling.” The article explains, “The judges who challenged the retirement mandate, and who argued their case before the Supreme Court during a hearing in May, contended that the law represented age discrimination and violated their fundamental rights guaranteed under the state constitution. The retirement cutoff is based on a fallacy that after age 70, judges become less mentally and physically capable and more prone to debilities like dementia, the judges challenging the law claimed.” According to the Post Gazette, the opinion acknowledged the difficulty of presiding over the case, saying “As a preliminary matter, we acknowledge a degree of discomfort in presiding over the present matter, as, obviously, members of this court might benefit from a ruling favorable to petitioners… However, he went on to say that the court took on the matter because of the ‘long-standing rule of necessity.’”
Sources: Matt Miller, Pa. Supreme Court Upholds Law Requiring Judges To Retire At Age 70, Patriot News, June 17, 2013; Paula Reed Ward, Pa. High Court Rejects Changing Mandatory Retirement For Judges, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 18, 2013.

Controversy Over Use of Retired Judges and Lack of Accountability
An article in the Tribune Democrat explores the use of retired judges to fill temporary vacancies in Pennsylvania state court. The article states, “The judicial system of recalling retired judges to temporarily fill vacancies on the bench is saving Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars, state court officials report. But the practice also circumvents the state constitutional requirement that judges answer to the voters for their performance, according to the political action committee The Majority Party.” One argument in favor of the practice is the cost. “The state made $4.33 million in recall payments to 114 retired or senior judges last year, at the rate of $534 for every day served. Art Heniz, spokesman for the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts, said the system saved taxpayers $9.8 million over the past three years because retired judges, including their pension payments, cannot make more than a sitting county judge.” However, a Majority Party spokesperson argues that it is “contrary to the state constitutional requirement that judges in Pennsylvania face voters every 10 years to run against their record. He said some retired judges serve as recall judges for several years with no public scrutiny of their performance.”
Source: John Finnerty, Court Savings Costly?, Tribune Democrat, June 22, 2013.


Center for American Progress: Voters Overwhelmingly Support Judicial Election Reforms
A new poll from the Center for American Progress “found that 80 percent of voters support stronger disclosure laws for judicial campaigns, and this level of support is consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Voters across the political spectrum want to know who is paying for ads that attack judicial candidates, but in many states, disclosure laws do not apply to some ads that criticize candidates during an election.” The research continues, “The poll also found that a clear majority of voters favor ‘merit-selection’ systems in which an independent commission composes a list of potential judges based on their qualifications, from which the governor chooses a nominee. But Republican legislators in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are trying to eliminate or weaken these merit-selection systems and give politicians more control over appointing judges. Sixty-one percent of Kansans said they opposed amending their state constitution to eliminate merit selection in a recent survey by Justice at Stake.” The study concludes, “Special interests that want to influence the law are using campaign cash to change the composition of state courts. The states that have seen the most campaign cash are more likely to rule in favor of corporations and against individuals. The poll results indicate that voters understand that these reforms could help ensure that judges are true to the law and not to political parties or campaign contributors. Quite simply: Judges should not be for sale.”
Source: Billy Corriher, Voters Overwhelmingly Support Judicial Election Reforms, Center for American Progress, June 21, 2013.

Center for Public Integrity: D.C.-Based Groups Targeted State High Court Races With Ads
The Center for Public Integrity has published its research on spending by D.C.-based groups in state Supreme Court elections. The Center “examined 10 high-profile state supreme court elections in 2012 and 2013 where outside spending was a factor. At least a third of the $11.7 million spent by independent groups — collected from campaign finance reports, tax records and documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission — originated outside the election states, mostly from Washington, D.C.-based organizations.” The study concludes, “The influence of nonprofits and super PACs has changed the nature of state supreme court races, formerly shielded, at least in part, from the influence of money and partisan politics. Now, in many states, justices are involved in bare-knuckle partisan brawls similar to those that characterize non-judicial elections. In the 10 state races analyzed by the Center, national political groups were active directly or indirectly in seven. Seventy-five percent of the outside money could be traced to the long-running battle between trial lawyers and business interests.”
Source: Alan Suderman and Ben Weider, D.C.-Based Groups Bombarded State High Court Races With Ads, Center for Public Integrity, June 13, 2013.

American Constitution Society: Justice at Risk
A recent study from the American Constitution Society looks at the influence of business money in judicial elections. According to the summary, “The data confirm a significant relationship between business group contributions to state supreme court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters. The more campaign contributions from business interests justices receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in court. Notably, the analysis reveals that a justice who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time…. The data also show that there is a stronger relationship between business contributions and justices’ voting among justices affiliated with the Democratic Party than among justices affiliated with the Republican Party. Because Republican justices tend to be more ideologically predisposed to favor business interests, additional business contributions may not have as large of an influence on them as they do on Democratic justices.”
Source: Joanna Shepherd, Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, American Constitution Society, June 11, 2013 [PDF].