“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retried on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?”

I’m voting No.

It’s hard to see how this change serves the public interest. However, there are many public interests that are harmed by a Yes vote on this ballot question, beginning with the misleading language of the ballot question and the sleazy way in which it got on the ballot.

On September 6, The Philadelphia Inquirer observed that those who would benefit the most from this change – PA Supreme Court justices – have allowed a ballot question that removes a crucial fact from the question: PA already has mandatory retirement for judges at age 70.

Our Supreme Court allowed the legislature to rem0ve that fact from the question, inevitably giving the impression to some voters that they would be imposing a new restriction on our turbulent judiciary by voting Yes when, in fact, a No vote imposes the already existing, and more conservative, restriction.

It was a split decision (3-3) by our highest court. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (who twice tried to hide a pocket knife while boarding an airplane because, well, you know, he’s special) did not take part in the decision, thereby guaranteeing that he will benefit personally from a Yes vote. He turns 70 this year and, if No voters win, will be out by January 1.

So he recused himself, which gave him the semblance of integrity without the substance. Instead, he should have cast the deciding vote in favor of making the question clearer to the voting public and against his own self-interest. But he didn’t. That alone justifies a No vote.

Sh0oting down this ballot question also sends another message to the General Assembly that it can’t get away with sleazy procedures. When lawmakers made the question misleading, they held no public hearings on the change, only a few perfunctory committee meetings.

From its introduction in the House to final passage in the Senate took seven days. So there is no record of what the public might have thought about which version of the question – with the crucial fact and without it – is clearer to the average citizen. Coming three years after it first passed the House and Senate, this last-minute lawmaking looks a lot like bait-and-switch to me.

Voting Yes only encourages lawmakers to continue their errant and undemocratic ways – and judges to acquiesce in it.

Then there is the cost to taxpayers. There is no official estimate – fiscal note – telling taxpayers how much this change will cost, another piece of information voters deserve to have.

Pennsylvania’s pension system is in deep trouble – a debt approaching $60 billion and growing by $13.7 million every day. And every day, lawmakers ignore this problem – except when they can devise ways to increase the debt, such as by allowing judges to pad their pensions for five more years.

Remember, too, that PA judges get automatic pay raises every year. So five more years for judges on the bench means five years of higher pension debt forced upon taxpayers.

The argument that the Commonwealth needs septuagenarian judges disserves the public in another way. Pennsylvania has an abundance of legal talent. Every judge who retires, either voluntarily or by operation of the Constitution, allows that talent to rise to the surface, from district judges through the Supreme Court. This creates a ripple effect that cannot help but bring new energy and insight to our judiciary.

Voting Yes further ossifies an institution desperately in need of new blood.

Voting No ensures a systematic reinvigoration of our courts with people who do not yet think of themselves as so irreplaceable and, well, special.

In short:

  • The ballot question is purposely misleading.
  • Its legislative history, complete with judicial complicity, is barely better than the Pay Raise of 2005.
  • If approved, the question postpones a needed revitalization to our troubled judiciary.
  • The cost, if approved, adds to the pension debt and the overall cost of the judiciary without any improvement in public service.

This ballot question has earned a No vote.