The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

October 11, 2013

Senior judges operate in gray area | Forced to retire but needed to ease case load

JOHNSTOWN — We know many workers who can’t wait for the day that they can retire and live off the pension that they have worked years for. And we know others who aren’t ready to retire, even when they get to the age where they could easily do so.

But we don’t know too many who are fortunate enough to be able to do both – collect a pension while still working at their old job on a part-time basis.

That’s what 86 retired Pennsylvania judges are doing, and they earned millions of extra dollars last year via this “double-dip” arrangement.

The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre looked into the situation and found that Senior Judge Ricardo Jackson in Philadelphia received more than $176,000 in compensation last year. That’s just part of the $4 million that taxpayers shelled out in per diems to the retirees, who also collected $7 million in pension fees.

The judges are used to fill in the gaps in an overworked judicial system and are a cheaper alternative than full-time judges, according to Joseph Mittleman of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

It is “far less expensive paying the per-diem for the senior judge than to pay salary and benefits for a commissioned judge because the senior judges are already receiving their benefits,” Mittleman testified at a recent legislative hearing.

That very well may be. But, while we are uneasy with the ability of judges to draw a pension while continuing to work on a regular basis, we’re more concerned about the fact that the judges are not accountable to the general public in any way, shape or form.

“We ought to be asking the best way to make sure all citizens have access to a fair and impartial judicial system,” said Eric Epstein, a citizen activist. “The real problem is that over 20 percent of the judiciary are arbitrarily appointed and not accountable.”

We agree with Epstein. While judges are almost always retained by voters, it’s still important for us to have a say in the matter.

As we’ve written here before, the real problem is the mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges. If the state believes that judges are no longer capable of performing their duties when they reach that arbitrary age, then why are we continuing to allow them to try cases as senior judges?

Either they’re still able to handle the demands of the job – and we believe that many are – and should be allowed to stay on the bench, or they are not. If the latter is the case, as the law currently states, then septuagenarians should not be working as freelancers who can pick and choose their assignments while still collecting pensions.

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