Pennsylvania's top elections official defended his role Wednesday in postponing a controversial referendum to extend the retirement age of judges to 75.
In a filing to the state Supreme Court, where he is a defendant in a suit over the ballot question, Secretary of State Pedro Cortes said "the need for certainty" drove his decision to move the referendum from the April primary until November.
Cortes, a cabinet member in the administration of Democratic Gov. Wolf, did so this year at the request of Republican Senate leaders, who later moved to reword the question to eliminate any reference to the current mandatory retirement age of 70.
Senate Democrats sued to stop Cortes, but he implemented the change nonetheless. Critics have said the language change is "deceitful" to voters and would potentially help keep a 69-year-old GOP justice from retiring on a court that recently flipped to a Democratic majority.
"The need for certainty is what caused the secretary to agree to the Senate Republicans' ballot question in the initial round of litigation," Cortes wrote in his response to the lawsuit, "and it is also what caused the secretary to voluntarily amend the wording of the ballot question to conform to the concurrent resolution."
The July 21 lawsuit, brought by two former Supreme Court justices and one of the region's most prominent lawyers, threatens the GOP-backed proposal for an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution. How the ballot question is worded is at the core of the case brought by Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague and former Supreme Court Chief Justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr.
Initially, Cortes, acting on authorization from the legislature, drafted a question that asked voters if judges should be allowed to retire at 75 "instead of the current requirement that they be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70."
Republicans who control both legislative chambers contended the wording was cumbersome. Two weeks before the April primary, they changed the language to remove the clause noting the current retirement age. Cortes agreed to postpone the ballot question, with its new wording, until November.
The suit by Castille, Zappala, and Sprague claims the new language deprives voters of their constitutional right to have the facts necessary to make an intelligent and fully informed decision on the measure.
In his filing Wednesday, Cortes asked the court to forgo oral arguments and rule "as expeditiously as possible," given the time that might be needed to again change ballots and publicize the change.
Critics have called the ballot measure a thinly veiled attempt by GOP power brokers to retain influence on the Supreme Court, where Republicans recently became a 5-2 minority. Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, a Republican, turns 70 at the end of this year.