SHOULD THE STATE Constitution be amended to change the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 75 years old?
That's a fairly straightforward question, but it's not what voters will see on the ballot on Nov. 8. They will be asked to vote "Yes" or "No" on a question that takes more words to say a lot less:
"Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?"
Those 38 words have created a lot of controversy and several lawsuits - including one filed by two retired state Supreme Justices - that claim the question is deceitful because it never mentions that the change being made lengthens the time judges can serve by five years.
Unfortunately, so far the courts have rejected those suits and, as of now, the ballot question will appear as drafted.
We agree with those who filed the suits challenging the wording of the ballot question. We believe it is deceitful - and deliberately so, designed to bamboozle voters into thinking they are voting on a minor issue that simply codifies existing law instead of adding five years to a judge's term.
We have proof of that assertion. In a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll, the pollsters rotated the questions. One was the one that will appear on the ballot. Sixty-five percent of the voters said they would vote "Yes."
Another made it clear the question was changing the mandatory retirement year from 70 to 75. Only 39 percent of the voters said they would vote "Yes" on that question.
By leaving out one crucial piece of information, supporters of the bill in the Legislature and in the judiciary greatly increased its chances of passage. To put it more bluntly, they are trying to rig the question so they get the results they desire.
It's hard to have an informed electorate when we don't give them the information they need.
On that grounds alone, we urge voters to vote "No" on the ballot question. We shouldn't reward the shenanigans that have marked the path of this question through the legislature and onto the ballot.
We also oppose it on other grounds. Our judiciary hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. The "Porngate" scandal took down two Supreme Court justices. A third was convicted of violation of election laws.
We don't think it is the right time to award judges an extra five years on the bench. We know there are some excellent jurists among the 1,000 or so state judges now on the bench. And that includes many of the 19 judges who turn 70 at the end of this year and will have to retire if the ballot question fails.
But we also know there is no shortage of smart lawyers who want to be judges. Being on the bench is a desirable job, and the lure is strong. The salary is sweet: $176,572 a year, plus generous pension and health and welfare benefits. These jobs don't go begging. In May 2015, we had 12 Common Pleas judgeships in Philadelphia on the ballot. Forty-three candidates ran for them.
All of the above evidence adds up to our recommendation that voters cast a No vote on the judicial ballot question.