The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

March 16, 2013

Proposal targets retirement age for judges

EBENSBURG — It was 2007 when management consultant Bill Byham penned the book “70: The New 50.”

But it established a mindset that remains and could ignite a change for judges in Pennsylvania.

Legislation has been introduced to eliminate the requirement that judges call it quits when they reach age 70. The law would apply from the magisterial level in every county to the Court of Common Pleas and the state Superior and Supreme courts.

Achieving such a change would take significant support from state legislators, require a constitutional amendment and approval by Pennsylvania voters – but the initiative appears to be gaining steam.

“Age 70 used to be very old, but not anymore,” said Aaron Zappia, aide to state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who has introduced legislation calling for an amendment to the state’s Constitution eliminating the age requirement.

Greenleaf is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is hoping to gain support for the change, which he views as being in the best interest of the judicial system and the citizenry.

His initiative eliminates any reference to age, unlike legislation introduced in 2012 in hopes of increasing judges mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75.

Meanwhile, two lawsuits filed in Commonwealth Court by judges is forcing a broader look at the issue.

Under the way the Constitution is written, judges, despite the time remaining in their elected terms, must step down at the end of the year that they turn 70.

They may continue to serve as senior judges, helping out when the court system is overloaded or if a conflict arises, but they are paid on a per diem basis and lose salary, benefits and much of their staff.

Many judges say the forced retirement comes at a time when they are hitting their stride, eager to remain part of the work force and judicial system, some judges in Cambria County have said.

The mandatory age and proposed constitutional amendment are getting mixed reviews by sitting judges here, including President Judge Timothy Creany and Judge Norman Krumenacker, who is next in seniority.

Creany, 67, appointed in July 1992, said attitudes toward age have changed significantly through the years, and in today’s thinking, 70 is not old.

While the law now requires Creany to retire or take the role of senior judge in three years, he is seeking his third 10-year term this year.

“People are living longer and healthier lives now,” Creany said.

Taxpayers could see some financial benefit in pension savings, Creany said. There would be fewer working senior judges and those on the bench would not be collecting pensions, he said.

Creany says he is in good health and there is nothing he would rather be doing. But a push to change the mandatory age would take time.

Zappia said a constitutional amendment would have to go through two legislative sessions and likely would not go to the voters until after the 2015-2016 session, he said.

Krumenacker, 58, who became judge at age 37 through an appointment making him one of the youngest judges in the state at that time, also is seeking his third 10-year term this year.

He thinks a lot of new and good ideas come from young judges who take the bench as older ones bow out.

Drug court, veterans court, mental health court and other common-sense ideas have come from younger judges, he said.

Senior judges can find plenty of work after reaching 70, Krumenacker said.

“I just feel there is a time when we all should retire,” he said.

Judge Linda Fleming, at 50, is the youngest on the Cambria County bench. She maintains arbitrary regulations can create unfair results.

“We don’t make people stop driving at age 70,” she said.

As for judges becoming senile and ineffective in their service, the system has a built-in safeguard – the elections process, she said.

“It’s still up to the voters. Every judge in Pennsylvania comes up for retention every 10 years,” she said. “If voters believe judges are not effective, they can vote to not retain them.”

About a half-dozen judges across the state think the mandatory age is discriminatory and violates the federal Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Named in the suit are Gov. Tom Corbett, Secretary of State Carol Aichele, state Treasurer Rob McCord and Court Administrator Zygmont Pines. The judges are asking the court to stop the plaintiffs from enforcing the retirement provision, according to the website of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

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