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New attempt to stop ballot question raising judges' retirement age

HARRISBURG - The fight over the wording of a ballot question on raising the retirement age for judges has landed in Commonwealth Court.

HARRISBURG - The fight over the wording of a ballot question on raising the retirement age for judges has landed in Commonwealth Court.

Former state Supreme Court Justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr., together with prominent Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague, filed suit Monday, claiming that a last-minute legislative change to the ballot question's language is designed to trick voters into approving it. That, they say, amounts to "a fraud on the Pennsylvania electorate."

The suit mirrors a legal action the three brought over the summer that landed before the state Supreme Court. The high court deadlocked, and then rejected Sprague's request to kick the case down Commonwealth Court to allow it to decide whether the wording change is deceptive.

At issue is the Republican-controlled legislature's eleventh-hour vote this year to both change the phrasing of the ballot question and delay a vote on it until November.

The question was originally to be decided during April's primary election; the initial question asked voters whether they would approve of raising the mandatory retirement age for judges in Pennsylvania from 70 to 75.

Legislative Republicans, backed by a number of Democrats, said that was too confusing. Just weeks before the primary, they voted to change the language and delay voting on the ballot question until November. At that point, many counties had already printed primary ballots with the original question - and voters ended up casting votes on it, rejecting it. That result did not count.

The new language over which Sprague, Castille, and Zappala are suing asks voters only whether they would approve mandating judges to retire at 75. It withholds the fact that they now have to leave the bench when they turn 70.

The three contend that the new question is "misleadingly designed to garner 'yes' votes from voters who are actually in favor of restricting the terms of . . . judges but are unaware that the proposed amendment will have the opposite effect," according to Monday's suit.

They are asking Commonwealth Court to expedite consideration of their case, given that the question is to appear on the ballot in less than two months.

Drew Crompton, the top lawyer for Senate Republicans, who championed the wording change, on Monday dismissed the renewed legal challenge.

"This would be an interesting lawsuit if the Supreme Court hadn't just decided it over the past few weeks," he said.

Crompton also said that the new court filing ignores a 4-2 order late last week by the high court, rejecting Sprague, Castille, and Zappala's request to let the lower court reconsider the challenge.

Sprague, in an interview last week, said that the high court's order did not specifically preclude him from refiling the case in Commonwealth Court.