Voters going to the polls on Nov. 8 will face an array of decisions, ranging from deciding who will be our next president to picking who will represent us in the state Legislature.
They’ll also be asked to vote on a referendum, which seems clear on the face of it. But others are worried that what isn’t included in the question is even more important than the referendum itself.
Basically, voters will be asked if they want to extend the retirement age for local, county and state judges from 70 to 75. But that’s not exactly what’s on the referendum. The question on the ballot only asks voters if judges should retire at the age of 75.
It makes no mention of the retirement age being extended from 70 to 75, and that has some people worried that voters might vote for the referendum without understanding its full implication.
Some are even saying that Republican lawmakers came up with the wording in an attempt to keep Chief Justice Thomas Saylor on the bench. Saylor, a Republican, turns 70 in December and will have to retire unless the referendum is approved. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the bench by a 5-2 margin.
The controversy started after the state Legislature passed the referendum in two consecutive sessions as required of an amendment to the state constitution. Wording for the referendum was developed by state officials, and it was put on the ballot for the primary election last spring. However, Republican leaders in the state Legislature complained about the wording, saying it was too confusing. They came up with their own wording, but state officials said it was too late to change the referendum, so the original question remained on the ballot despite cautions that the results wouldn’t matter. A number of commonwealth residents cast their ballots on the referendum anyway, and it passed by a slim margin of 50.98 percent to 49.02 percent.
The revamped referendum was set to appear on the fall ballot, but it was then challenged in court by former state Supreme Court Justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr. and Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague, all Democrats. They claimed the new wording failed to mention the retirement age was being extended from 70 to 75 and was designed by Republicans to trick voters into approving it.
However, the Supreme Court was deadlocked 3-3 on the challenge, assuring that voters would cast their ballots on the revamped referendum.
Since voters will be asked to give their opinion of the referendum, the Herald-Standard Editorial Board felt obligated to do likewise.
Some on the board felt that with all the money judges make, they might be loathe to step down on their own. After all, county judges make $176,572 a year, while state judges pull down salaries between $191,926 and $203,409. They also thought it was time for some older judges to retire and make way for younger judges who might be able to bring some new ideas and ways of doing things to the bench.
However, others on the board contended that forcing judges to retire at the age of 70 was a severe form of age discrimination. It’s worth noting that when the state constitution was passed in 1968, forcing judges to retire at 70, the average life expectancy in the United States was 66. Today it’s 82. Also, three judges on the U.S. Supreme Court are 78 or older.
The latter view prevailed among board members, so we’re urging people to vote yes on the referendum. Voters should realize that they’re extending the retirement age from 70 to 75, and in the end that’s the right thing to do for our judges who have served our commonwealth so well over the years.