Legislation that could eventually lead to a constitutional amendment to increase the retirement age of judges to the year in which they turn 75 advanced in the House of Representatives last week.
The bill passed final consideration 157-44 on Friday.
In another legislative development involving the judiciary, Governor Tom Corbett signed the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year Sunday, including a 3 percent increase for the judiciary from what Corbett had originally proposed.
The judicial retirement bill's primary sponsor, Representative Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, said that some members of her own caucus were not supportive of the bill and that she also heard from Democrats active in politics who also were not supportive of the bill.
"Political people tended to think you make spots available for newer, younger people if you move people off the bench earlier," Harper said. "It's a political calculation."
But Harper said she was pleased that the dissent did not win the day and that the bill passed with healthy bipartisan support.
Harper said she will ask state Senator Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, to run her bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Greenleaf chairs. Greenleaf has sponsored a bill that would get rid of retirement for judges altogether.
Harper said the "incremental approach" in her legislation might be easier for people to deal with because it would represent a five-year extension of the retirement age of judges, not the equivalent to a lifetime appointment by the voters.
But Harper said the earliest she expects the Senate to take up the legislation would be in the fall and that the earliest that a constitutional amendment could be put to the voters would be 2015.
"Even that I think would be way too ambitious," Harper said.
The legislation must be passed by both houses of the General Assembly in another legislative session, and the current session will last until November 30, 2014, Harper said.
Constitutional amendments are difficult to accomplish so "we don't do anything hasty," Harper said.
The issue of judicial retirement has been a hot one this year. Last month, a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the mandate that judges retire in the year in which they turn 70. Justice Thomas G. Saylor, writing for the majority, said, "There is colorable merit" to the judicial plaintiffs' argument that a constitutional amendment might impinge on inalienable rights that are also recognized in the state constitution.
But, Saylor continued, "we do not believe that the charter's framers regarded an immutable ability to continue in public service as a commissioned judge beyond 70 years of age as being within the scope of the inherent rights of mankind."
The court applied rational-basis scrutiny to the constitutional challenges on equal protection and due process grounds.
Two federal lawsuits and one state-court lawsuit challenging the mandatory retirement remain pending.
budget, budget, budget
The state budget included an increase for the judiciary of 3 percent, or $317.4 million, said James Koval, who is part of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts' budget and finance team.
First, the House of Representatives increased the budget by $4.6 million, or 1.5 percent, in mid-June, The Legal previously reported.
Then the Senate increased the judiciary's budget by another $4.6 million, or 1.5 percent, Koval said.
Corbett had proposed level funding of $308.1 million.
The judiciary had asked for just short of $325 million, Koval said.
While the court will face a $7.5 million deficit, the judiciary will see how things go and keep an eye on it, Koval said.
While Superior Court President Judge Correale F. Stevens was confirmed by the Senate last weekend to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, no other judicial vacancies were filled, Koval said. Keeping judgeships open has been the Unified Judicial System's main release valve in controlling its budget in recent years.
There are around 20 vacancies on the courts of common pleas around the state, Koval said.
Instead, Stevens was confirmed as part of a package to confirm other open positions, including some that are traditionally considered Democratic positions, on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Koval said.
There also will not be any expenditures to outfit a new chambers for Stevens because he already is an appellate-court judge, Koval said.
There was discussion over the weekend to use half of the court's computer operational account to fund mass transit as part of the House of Representatives' effort to not increase as many fees on driver's licenses and moving violations in order to accomplish more transit funding, Koval said.
"We had to work to beat that down, which we did," Koval said.