Life begins at 70
In one of those cases that determines more than is visible on the surface, the state Supreme Court did exactly the right thing in a decision released Monday.
The case was filed by some judges who contended that the state constitution's requirement that judges retire at 70 contradicts the guarantee of equal rights ensured by the constitution itself.
Whether the Supreme Court should have handled the case was questionable because the rule applies to all Pennsylvania judges, including Supreme Court justices. And it is particularly relevant now because Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille will turn 70 next year, when he also would be scheduled to seek re-election by retention. Two other justices are in their upper 60s.
As a practical matter, it is reasonable to argue that age 70 is not quite the milestone it was in 1968, when the provision was added to the constitution. Indeed, many judges serve effectively as senior judges well beyond 70.
As it turned out, the justices clearly took the case in order to reject it. They ruled unanimously that any effort to eliminate or alter the mandatory retirement provision should be done through the constitutional amendment process itself. That process culminates with a public referendum, putting the matter directly in the hands of citizens rather than solely in the province of judges who would benefit from a change.
" .. Theoretically at least, there is some possibility that a constitutional amendment might impinge on inherent, inalienable rights otherwise recognized in the Constitution itself. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the charter's framers regarded an immutable ability to continue in public service as a commissioned judge beyond seventy years of age as being within the scope of the inherent rights of mankind. Rather, in view of the people's indefeasible right to alter their government ... the proper approach of conforming the Constitution more closely with Petitioners' vision ... is to pursue further amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution," Justice Thomas Saylor wrote for the court.
Justice Michael Eakin added that the provision serves a valuable public policy purpose in ensuring regular turn-over of judicial power, in that it "... simply creates terminal points at which the power will pass to others."
The justices deserve credit for placing the public interest over their own.