Federal court dismisses suit by Pa. judges over mandatory retirement age

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Sep 25, 2013

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Legal Newsline) -- A federal judge has dismissed a challenge filed by a group of judges challenging Pennsylvania's mandatory retirement age.

Northampton County Judge Leonard Zito, Senior Judge Benjamin Lerner and Judge John Herron, both of Philadelphia, filed their lawsuit in federal court in January.

Zito will be forced to retire in January 2014. Lerner was forced to retire in January last year. Herron will be forced to retire in January 2015.

The judges argue that the state's retirement provision "unfairly and arbitrarily" denies them of their employment, contrary to federal law as set out in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"The mandatory retirement provision deprives Pennsylvania justices and judges of their property interest in their continued employment solely on the basis of age without conferring upon them a pre-termination opportunity to be heard or a post-termination opportunity to contest their ability to serve competently in the roles to which they were elected by the people of the Commonwealth," the judges wrote in their 19-page amended complaint.

Judge John E. Jones III of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania stayed the case in April.

However, in June, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed two similar lawsuits.

All six members of the state's high court agreed that the judges in those cases should pursue an amendment to the state's constitution if they want to eliminate the age requirement.

Following the state high court's decision, the federal case was allowed to move forward.

Jones, in his 16-page memorandum published Tuesday, granted the defendants' motion to dismiss in its entirety.

The named defendants in the federal suit include Gov. Tom Corbett, Court Administrator Zygmont Pines, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele and Treasurer Robert McCord.

"There is at least a superficial irony in having a judge who is appointed for life under Article III of the United States Constitution rule against his judicial colleagues on the courts of this Commonwealth who must hang up their robes at age 70," Jones wrote. "And we confess that this causes us no small amount of discomfort.

"But at the end of the day, it is for the citizens of the Commonwealth and their elected representatives to amend and alter the subject provision, not this court."

Jones said while the court may "personally doubt" the "continued efficacy" of the current mandatory retirement age, it cannot base its decision on it.

"Perhaps better than anyone else, the plaintiffs before us recognize the legal principle of stare decisis, which directs us in the matter sub judice to but one result," the federal judge wrote.

Click here to read Jones' memorandum.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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