HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A politically charged court fight loomed Thursday over whether Pennsylvania’s primary voters can choose to raise the mandatory retirement age for more than 1,000 state judges or whether it will be postponed until the November general election.
The Pennsylvania Department of State told counties it has been advised that a lawsuit is imminent. As a result, the department told counties to keep it on the April 26 primary ballot for now, instead of removing it.
Otherwise, the Department of State told counties, it would comply with a non-binding legislative resolution to move the ballot question to November if no lawsuit is filed or if the court decides not to block the resolution.
At issue is a Republican-sponsored resolution approved by lawmakers during the past week ordering the postponement of the ballot question until the Nov. 8 general election.
Lawmakers last year gave final authorization to a primary ballot question on whether to change the Pennsylvania Constitution to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.
Senate Democrats said Thursday that they are in the final stages of drafting a lawsuit. The resolution carries no such authority to order the ballot question’s postponement, Sen. Daylin Leach, R-Montgomery, said.
Counties already have mailed thousands of absentee ballots printed with the question, Leach said.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of counties will be unable to reprogram or otherwise change voting machines to remove the question. If it is removed, county election officials will have to post signs in polling places advising voters of the postponement, said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
A Senate Republican lawyer, Drew Crompton, said Thursday that seeking the postponement through a resolution was the appropriate channel since the ballot question had been authorized through a resolution, as is customary.
Lawmakers could easily have passed legislation to carry out the same date change, Crompton said.
Lawmakers who opposed the postponement say the change wastes more than $1 million in taxpayer costs to advertise the ballot question. Supporters say more people will be voting in the November election.
The fight over the ballot question has political overtones.
Leach said postponing the vote also paves the way to rewrite the ballot question in a way that is more likely to win approval from voters.
The Republican chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Thomas Saylor, turns 70 in December and must retire at the end of the year, under the current rules.
Changing the retirement age this year would grant him another five years on a court where he is outnumbered five-to-one by Democrats. The court’s chief justice is determined by seniority and, if Saylor must retire at the end of the year, the next five chief justices would be Democrats.
Last month, the five Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court voted 5-0 to turn down a Senate Republican request to revise the wording of the primary ballot question, in part to remove a reference to the current retirement age. Saylor did not participate in the decision.
Senate Republican leaders had called the wording unnecessary and confusing.
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