In addition to electing a new U.S. President, state attorney general and state senator this fall, Pennsylvanians will also need to make a decision on judicial retirement age. This November, voters will be asked to decide whether the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges should be raised to age 75.

Currently, judicial retirement is set at 70. The question of increasing the retirement age has been fraught with political controversy and tension. Originally placed on the April ballot, votes were not counted, and it was bumped to November. Since then, much political maneuvering has surrounded this issue, and the final vote will be taken on Election Day. With 19 judges set to retire this year at age 70 from the courts the battle is far from over. The Philadelphia Bar Association co presented a Chancellor’s Forum on judicial retirement age with the Committee of Seventy and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts in March, ahead of the initial question scheduled for the April ballot.

The Chancellor’s Forum, moderated by Vincent R. McGuinness Jr., managing partner, Cozen O’Connor, underscored just how polarizing and turgid the issue remains. The panelists included, Rep. Kate Harper, 61st Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Sen. Anthony H. Williams, 8th District, Pennsylvania State Senate; Dr. Barry W. Rovner, director of geriatric psychiatry at Jefferson University Hospital; and Joseph J. Mittleman, director of judicial programs for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Harper has been a champion of the cause to increase retirement age since 2013 when she introduced a proposal to increase the retirement age. She discussed various reasons why she believes the judicial retirement age should be increased from 70 to 75. “Women hit their stride a little bit later, so they should serve longer once they are on the bench,” Harper said. Additionally, life expectancy is longer than when the retirement age was set in 1968. We live longer, healthier lives and as lawyers we are practicing longer. Harper believes there is a “depth or maturity and wisdom that increases with age” and she referred to the perception that regular people view judges “as wise and merciful.” She focused on the fact that it is “not just legal experience that accumulates over time…but also human experience.”

Williams referred to a “lofty position of power” held by some judges. “Why are we changing the age limit? What circumstances have changed, other than the fact that some judges want to work longer?” he asked. He also addressed
the “major question mark with how we transition from 70 to 75 in terms of cognitive abilities.” Williams believes there is some changing of cognitive function between the ages of 70 and 75 and he does not necessarily believe that all judges are kinder, wiser or more empathetic as they age.

There can be changes in cognitive function particularly as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease and the occurrences of the disease between the ages of 70 and 75, Rovner said. Rovner said that some cognitive function may deteriorate while other cognitive functions expand. The brain ages and as we get older it may take longer to do certain tasks. However, functions involved with memory, fairness and empathy actually expand. While it may take longer to learn new computer functions or work a cell phone, you may in fact be wiser. Rovner notes there is no meaningful change in the occurrences of Alzheimer’s between the age of 70 to 75, roughly two people for every 1,000, and “The risk of developing dementia is extremely low at 70-75.”

With respect to the fiscal impact on the Court, Mittleman said that the “impact financially will be minimal.” If the judges that were supposed to retire do not, we still will be paying their salaries this year. An additional five years will not change what we pay in salaries and benefits, which make up 80 percent of the budget. Pensions will be higher, but they will pay into the system for five more years.

Voters will need to decide on this ballot question before Election Day, taking the factors that come with aging into consideration and perhaps doing their own research in order to be confident in their decisions.

Maureen M. Farrell ([email protected]), principal of the Law Offices of Maureen M. Farrell, is an associate
editor of the Philadelphia Bar Reporter.

This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Bar Reporter, October 2016.