Pennsylvania voters to decide judge retirement age

Greg Gross
  • Retirement age would increase from 70 to 75
  • Referendum question will be on the April 26 primary ballot
  • A simple majority is needed for the referendum to pass

Pennsylvania voters will get to decide whether the state’s judges should be allowed to stay on the bench for an additional five years before they are forced to retire.

If they opt to up the mandatory retirement age to 75, that would mean York County Court of Common Pleas judge-elect Chris Menges would be able to serve a full 10 year term plus an additional year on the bench.

"I just feel confident the voters will pass it," Menges said. "I think the key is it had bipartisan support from the beginning."

York County solicitor Mike Flannelly was also elected to the bench in November but at age 59, he wouldn't have been immediately impacted by the current retirement age.

The state Senate voted 36-13 Monday to approve a pair of bills to extend the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75 and put the proposal out for a referendum vote in the April 26 primary.

All of the state’s roughly 1,000 judges would be affected if voters approve the retirement age change.

Locally: Under current law, judges have to retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

At age 64, that would have meant Menges, who was elected to a 10-year term in November, would have had to retire at the end of 2021, about halfway through his term. But it voters approve the referendum, he will be able to serve his full term plus an additional year if he's granted retention before being forced into retirement at the end of 2026.

"Its obviously very needed today," Menges said of increasing the retirement age.

A simple majority is needed in order for the referendum to pass, said Wanda Murren, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The state will have to adhere to legal advertising requirements to alert voters to the ballot question but the department is expected to do some sort of education component to help educate voters.

"I'm sure there will be lots of stuff going out to educate people," Murren said.

The vote: The Senate action completed the two rounds of legislative approval that are required for a constitutional amendment. Both chambers first approved the measure two years ago.

The York County Senate delegation was split evenly on the issue. Sens. Pat Vance, R-York/Cumberland, and Richard Alloway R-York, Adams and Franklin, voted in favor while Sens. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, and Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, Dauphin and York.

Vance said she voted in favor because it gives the voters a voice, allowing them to decide the matter. And increasing the retirement age makes sense.

"Seventy is the new 50," she said. "People are now working longer."

Folmer classified his "no" vote as a protest vote since he believes the judges in the state's higher courts, mainly justices on the Supreme Court, have grown out of touch with the people they serve. He added he'd like to see the system reformed, such as re-electing justices instead of simply granting them retention.

"I think they get out of touch with the people," he said. "The judicial branch was meant to be the referees. I think they've forgotten that."
The vote came less than two weeks after Democrats won three open seats on the state Supreme Court, giving them a 5-2 majority on Pennsylvania’s highest court, as well as two vacant seats on the state’s mid-level appellate courts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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