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Federal court: judicial retirement law isn't age discrimination

In 1968, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed a state constitutional amendment requiring all of its commissioned judges to retire at age 70. Surprisingly, that doesn’t mean the judges can’t continue to work, but it apparently does mean they don’t get paid as much. Last year, a group of judges challenged Pennsylvania’s mandatory retirement amendment as a form of age discrimination. They filed lawsuits claiming the law violated their rights under the Equal Protection clauses of the Pennsylvania and federal constitutions.

Once the judges turn 70, they are considered “senior judges” and their pay is fixed at $522 per day, according to the Courthouse News Service. They also lose their paid sick days, life insurance benefits and pay for chambers work. While this is hardly a subsistence wage, it does seem unfair that these otherwise well-qualified judges get paid less than their peers simply based on a birthday having passed.

The judges argued that society’s understanding of the effects of aging have changed substantially since 1968, and cognitive deterioration is both less common and more easily diagnosed today. Moreover, Pennsylvania has procedures in place to remove judges who develop cognitive impairments, which can occur either before or after age 70.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the judges’ case first. For that court to overturn a constitutional amendment, however discriminatory, the judges had to demonstrate, “clearly, palpably and plainly -- that the amendment is so unreasonable as to be considered irrational.” Unfortunately, the state high court said in June they had not.

Because the judges also claimed the amendment violated their federal constitutional rights, the age discrimination case was also heard by a federal judge.

"There is at least a superficial irony,” that judge wrote, “in having a judge who is appointed for life under Article III of the U.S. Constitution rule against his judicial colleagues on the courts of this Commonwealth who must hang up their robes at age 70, and we confess that this causes us no small amount of discomfort."

In 1980, unfortunately, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals had already ruled the mandatory retirement amendment was constitutional for other workers and, in 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court also found that Missouri’s mandatory retirement age for judges was constitutional.

As a result, the federal judge could not rule that “requiring retirement at age 70 represents an irrational means of seeking to ensure a well-functioning state judiciary."

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Pennsylvania Judges Lose Challenge to Age Limit,” Rose Bouboushian, Sept. 30, 2013

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