Pa. primary voters could decide judge retirement age

Greg Gross
  • One primary election ballot question would increase the mandatory retirement age for judges to 75, up from 70
  • A second question would do away with the Philadelphia traffic court

Pennsylvania could have wasted more than $1 million to advertise a ballot question for the primary if a bipartisan group of lawmakers gets its way and the referendum is moved to the November election.

Judge Christopher Menges, who was elected in November could potentially serve his full term if primary voters, vote to extend the retirement age in the upcoming election. Menges who is 64, under the current law would only be able to serve until he turns 70 in 2021. Amanda J. Cain photo

There's a push in the Legislature to move the ballot question on the mandatory age of retirement for judges — should it be 75, as opposed to the current retirement age of 70? — to the general election instead of the fast-approaching April 26 primary.

Supporters of the move argue fewer independent voters would turn out at the polls for the primary since Pennsylvania has closed primaries. Normally, that would mean only Democrats and Republicans can cast ballots.

Despite the state's closed primaries, nonaffiliated voters and those registered with third parties would be able to vote on the retirement question, as well as a second court-related referendum that will appear on the primary ballot. There are no plans to move the referendum to dissolve the Philadelphia traffic court to the November election.

"You won't be voting for any of the candidates, but you can vote on those two questions," said Nikki Suchanic, head of York County's election office.

Phrasing: Proponents also argue the wording of the retirement age question is too confusing for voters.

"People need to know what they're voting for," said Sen. Pat Vance, R-York and Cumberland counties.

The referendum is currently written as: "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?"

But some lawmakers want to change it to: "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?"

Advertising: If the retirement-age question were moved to the general election, the state would take a hit to its pocketbook.

The Pennsylvania Department of State has already spent $1.3 million on advertising the retirement age question for the primary in newspapers across the state, said Wanda Murren, the department's spokeswoman.

Referendums must be advertised in two papers in each county three times ahead of an election. If the question is moved to the November election, the Department of State would have to go through the advertising process all over again.

Resolutions: There are two GOP-crafted resolutions — House Resolution 783 and Senate Resolution 321 — in the Senate to delay the referendum.

Representatives approved the House version Wednesday, and the Senate is likely to vote on it early next week. All of York County's representatives, except Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, voted in favor.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would have to sign one of the resolutions for the question to be moved to the general election. The administration has been mum on what the governor intends to do if one or both the measures reach his desk.

The legislation is moving about two weeks after the state Supreme Court declined a request by Senate Republican leaders to alter wording they consider unnecessary and confusing.

If a resolution is signed by Wolf, there would be little or no time for election officials to remove the question from ballots. That would mean notices would have to be posted at each voting machine to tell voters that though the question is on the ballot, their vote for it won't be counted, Suchanic said.

Suchanic said it's tough to say the cost the county would incur if the question is moved to the general election, but she noted absentee ballots have already been printed and distributed.

Retirement age: All of the state’s roughly 1,000 judges, district judges and justices would be affected if voters approve the retirement age change, whether in a few weeks or in November. Under current law, judges have to retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

Moving the mandatory retirement age to 75 would affect several judges in York County, said Court of Common Pleas President Judge Joseph C. Adams.

In particular, Judge Christopher Menges, who was elected in November, would be able to serve a full 10-year term instead of only half a term.

At the current retirement age, he would only be able to serve until the end of 2021, the year he'd turn 70. But if the age is upped to 75, he'd be able to be a judge until 2026.

"If it (the referendum passes) and God gives me good health, I'll stay on until 2026 and then be a senior judge," Menges said, adding he sees no reason why a judge shouldn't be allowed to work until age 75.

But an increased retirement age doesn't guarantee judges will keep working until age 75. Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh, 68, said he intends to retire at the end of this year, about a year before he'd be forced to retire. Former judge Thomas H. Kelley VI left the bench late last year at age 51 and two years into his second term to become a private practice attorney.

The county currently has two vacancies on the 15-member bench and one long-term absentee with Judge Craig T. Trebilcock serving in the U.S. Army overseas for much of this year.

Second ballot question: Voters will undoubtedly see one court-related referendum question on their primary ballot. That one asks voters whether to dissolve the Philadelphia traffic court by amending the state's constitution.

The court hasn't been operating for a few years after its duties were handed over to the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Suchanic fears some York County voters may be confused when they see the question relating to Philadelphia. But rest assured, there's no mistake with the ballot.

"It's not a mistake. It's a statewide question to amend the constitution," she said.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.

Impact on the York County Court of Common Pleas

If the referendum is approved, judges, district judges and justices would have to retire at the end of the year in which they turn 75. Here's a look at when York County Court of Common Pleas judges would have to retire if the referendum is approved:

  • Stephen P. Linebaugh: 2022
  • John S. Kennedy: 2033
  • Gregory M. Snyder: 2028
  • Richard K. Renn: 2026 
  • Michael E. Bortner: 2024
  • Maria Musti Cook: 2032
  • Joseph C. Adams: 2043
  • Harry M. Ness: 2024
  • Andrea Marceca Strong: 2044
  • Craig T. Trebilcock: 2035
  • Todd Platts: 2037
  • Christopher Menges: 2026
  • Michael W. Flannelly: 2031