On retirement age of judges in Pennsylvania

On the case for extending the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges

Are you lying to me, roared the judge to the defendant.

Not lying, your Honour, just being economic with the truth.

Sometimes lawmakers deliberately use a sleight-of-hand to befuddle people. They are not lying, mind you, just being economic with the truth. English is a beautiful language; you can express yourself clearly, succinctly and unequivocally, if you know the language and if you try; or you can deliberately create confusion in an attempt to mislead. This became clear in the question to raise the retirement age of judges in Pennsylvania that is on the ballot on November 8, 2016.

There already is a retirement age for Pennsylvania judges: 70 years. The question is: Should this be raised to 75 years?

The original wording for the ballot in the April primary 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?”

This is a very clear statement. It tells us that:

  1. There is a retirement age: 70 years, and
  2. Should this be raised to 75 years

But, just before the primary, members of the legislative chambers quietly changed the wording. What the voters will now find on November 8 is the following: “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?”

The present wording would make you think that there is currently no retirement age and this is the first attempt at stipulating a retirement age for justices: 75 years. And you may be tempted to vote ‘yes’. But if you had known that there is a retirement age in place, i.e. 70 years, and this is only an attempt to extend the retirement age to 75, you may vote ‘no’. So the omission of the current retirement limit puts a wholly different spin on the ballot, an example of being, ‘economic with the truth’. Words matter, as pointed out in an excellent article in the Inquirer by Berwood A. Yost.

Let’s ask ourselves: Whom does this benefit directly? The Supreme Court Chief Justice, Thomas Saylor, a Republican, turns 70 in December. If the ballot measure does not pass, he will be forced to retire immediately. So this deliberate obfuscation is just a means for him to hold on to his current job and extend his tenure. There is no compelling reason to do this beyond partisan politics. Speaking of partisan politics, in nearly half of the House and Senate races, there is only one candidate, mostly the incumbent. Statewide, it is estimated only 10 out of 228 races are in play. This only preserves the status quo, not ideal for infusing fresh blood into politics. If we note the mood of the country and around the world, it is definitely against maintaining the status quo.

Judges, senators and congressmen have enormous responsibilities. They have to read and understand reams of documents with complicated arguments and data. They should have the stamina and mental acuity to deliberate and come to conclusions that effect our personal lives and the course of our nation. Unfortunately, stamina and mental acuity do not improve with age, they decline. Plus, when someone retires, a vacancy is created somewhere down the line and another, hopefully younger person gets hired, a definite plus for the economy. The same arguments apply to senators and congressmen; term limits. I have written about these in an earlier post titled, ‘A Question of Fairness and Wells Fargo‘.

Elderly statesmen and judges have a fund of wisdom and experience which would be of use to us all. There are other ways to serve the nation: e.g. as consultants, advisors or emeritus professors. We look forward to their continued participation, after they retire.

There is no time to reword the ballot initiative. I hope that concerned citizens are aware as to what is at stake and vote appropriately on Nov. 8, 2016.

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