An Unforeseen Problem: An Analysis of the PA Mandatory Judicial Retirement Age Ballot Question

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Roy Cross, Staff Writer

On Nov. 8, 2016, the American people will elect their next batch of government officials. While Americans will undoubtedly be focused on deciding whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton become President of the United States, Pennsylvanians will have one extra concern when they enter the ballot booth: They will vote on whether to approve a Pennsylvania constitutional amendment that would increase the mandatory retirement age of state judges from 70 years of age to 75.

Though this concept seems simple enough to present, the current wording of the ballot question is causing quite a bit of controversy. It is the subject of a lawsuit by two former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices and a well-respected Philadelphia attorney.

According to Ballotpedia, a website that informs voters on what to expect when showing up to the polls on Election Day, the ballot question reads: “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?”[1]

Without any prior knowledge, the average voter is unlikely to know that Pennsylvania currently has a mandatory retirement age for judges, let alone that the current retirement age is 70 years old. This is where the controversy lies. Even over a simple question, we hear partisan arguments focused on who benefits the most from which wording.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the original wording voted on by the State Senate indicated the current retirement age of 70 years.[2] Republicans, however, argued that the original wording made it seem like this amendment would affect the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of this grievance, the original question was changed to the now ambiguous wording, which no longer referenced the current age. Gov. Tom Wolf’s Secretary of the Commonwealth, Pedro Cortés, signed off on it — creating the controversy we have today.[3]

Estimated responses to the ballot informing voters of the current age were 45 percent “yes” and 47 percent “no”; estimated responses to the ballot omitting the current retirement age were 64 percent “yes” and 28 percent “no.”[4] The main reason for the dispute is that Justice Saylor is approaching his 70th birthday. Saylor is a Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justice, which means he is an important part of the Republican strategy to balance the 5-2 majority, Democrat-appointed Pennsylvania Supreme Court.[5]

For this reason, two former chief justices (Castille and Zappala Sr.) and a Philadelphia attorney (Richard Sprague) filed a federal complaint calling the wording “demonstrably misleading.”[6] This is just the latest in six months of litigation surrounding the proposed amendment.[7] There have been cases surrounding this specific amendment since 2012 over both the wording and the timing of the ballot. Despite bipartisan support for adding the amendment to the ballot, its execution has only led to the usual partisanship expected in American politics.[8]

As of now, the federal case is unlikely to stop the amendment’s current non-contextual form from appearing on the ballot when Pennsylvanians choose between Trump and Clinton, as well as Katie McGinty and Pat Toomey.[9] As Pennsylvanians decide on whether to increase the retirement age, 47 of Pennsylvania’s 1,000 judges will hold their breaths to see if they will still have their jobs in the next two years.[10]

In conclusion, remember that when you vote on Election Day, this amendment increases the current retirement age of judges. It does not create a mandatory retirement age that was not already present.






[4] Id.

[5] Id.


[7] Id.


[9] Id.


Comments are closed.