Hearing Probes PA Judges’ Mandatory Retirement Age

Lawmakers are mulling possible changes to the mandatory retirement age for the state’s judges, and a House Judiciary subcommittee heard from all sides of the issue on Thursday.  The focus of the hearing was HB 79, which would change the constitutional age limit on PA judges from 70 to 75. 

The current judicial age restriction was imposed in 1968.  “Many of us know there have been many demographic changes in Pennsylvania and in our nation since that time,” said state Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery), the bill’s prime sponsor.  “Not the least of which is, of course, that life expectancy has advanced in that time from age 70 to 78.” 

Pennsylvania is one of 33-states that currently impose some sort of age restriction on judges.  While one must retire from the bench at the age of 70 in the Keystone State, he or she still has the ability to serve as a senior judge until the age of 78. 

Duquesne University Law School Dean Kenneth Gormley testified in favor of Harper’s legislation, telling the Subcommittee on Courts the mandate made sense back in 1968.  “The age of 70 for any jurist at that time was a pretty advanced age,” he explained. 

But in 2013, Gormley says the mandate is especially restrictive for women whose average projected life expectancy is 81.1-years.  Men bring today’s combined average life expectancy down to 78.7. 

The Harper bill appears to be the middle ground in this discussion.  A separate Senate bill would completely eliminate the mandatory retirement age for the state’s judges, while others believe the limit ensures that judges are removed from the bench before decreased mental capabilities pose any problems. 

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which does not take a position on the issue, points out that judges themselves are divided over whether the mandatory retirement age is necessary.

Prison Closure Process Criticized

As the Department of Corrections moves forward with plans to close two prisons in western Pennsylvania, what many described as a “hasty” process was put under the microscope at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. 

“We were planning in-house to try to do it in the best manner, but there really isn’t a playbook, and the way that the staff found out – primarily by TV – is just inappropriate,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged to the committee.  “That’s my responsibility.” 

Earlier this month, Wetzel’s department announced that SCI Cresson and SCI Greensburg are scheduled to close by June 30th.  These aging facilities would be replaced by SCI Benner in Centre County. 

But the decision blindsided the 800 employees at those two facilities.  “You’re asking people to move their entire lives, and to make a big change, and you’re giving them – I don’t know – 11-days to make a decision,” lamented Senator Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), who believes the workers are being treated terribly.   

More than 560-positions will be available at SCI Benner.  Wetzel says the balance of interested employees will be given the opportunity to transfer elsewhere in the state prison system. 

“I suggest that we delay these shutdowns, for at least a year, until we can get everybody in position,” Senator Jim Brewster (D-Westmoreland) said to a rare smattering of applause in the Senate hearing room.   

But delays too would have their own negative consequences, according to Secretary Wetzel, who points out the decisions is scheduled to save the state $23-million dollars a year starting with the new state budget.

Hearing to Focus on Child Advocacy Center Bill

A Child Advocacy Center can be the focal point of care for young victims of physical or sexual abuse.  With them, state Rep. Julie Harhart (R-Lehigh/Northampton) says child victims must only tell their traumatic stories once.  Without them, she says, they would have to go through that experience five or more times for police officers, doctors, social workers and other officials.

Harhart is the prime sponsor of the Children’s Advocacy Center Funding Act which would help to support the state’s 20+ existing CACs, and assist counties that want to establish them.  No taxpayer money would be spent on the program, as HB 1739 calls for a $2-fee on certain court filings in the state.  However, that funding stream may be tweaked in committee to instead come from a fee on certain child abuse background checks conducted by the Department of Public Welfare.

The source of the funding is expected to be thoroughly discussed when the House Judiciary Committee convenes a public hearing in the capitol complex on Tuesday.

Rep. Harhart tells Radio PA that her passion for the bill comes from the success she’s seen firsthand at the Lehigh County Child Advocacy Center.  “It’s a one-stop-shop for the tiniest victims of crime,” she says.

This is not a new issue; Harhart has been working to find a statutory funding stream for CACs for ten years now.  She acknowledges, however, that the Penn State scandal may be bringing her bill more attention this year.