- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania’s top elections official warned in a court filing Wednesday that a lawsuit challenging the wording of a November ballot question to extend the judicial retirement age by five more years is pending as deadlines approach to advertise the question and send out absentee ballots.

Secretary of State Pedro Cortes asked the state Supreme Court to move quickly to decide the case, noting the limited amount of time that remains to modify the wording if the court orders changes to be made.

Attorneys for Cortes said in the filing that one deadline is less than a week away and that others will soon follow.

“There is still time, albeit very limited, for the secretary to adjust to this latest round of uncertainty,” they wrote in response to the legal challenge over how the proposed constitutional amendment was reworded at the direction of the Legislature this spring.

The proposed amendment would allow the state’s roughly 1,000 justices, judges and district judges to remain on the bench until age 75, compared to the current mandatory age of 70.

A version of the question that included both the current and proposed ages went before voters in the spring primary, but at the last minute lawmakers decided those votes would not count, and had the question rephrased to remove any reference to the existing age limit.

That prompted the lawsuit by retired justices Ronald Castille, a Republican, and Stephen Zappala Sr., a Democrat, as well as prominent Philadelphia lawyer Dick Sprague. They argue that without a reference to the existing retirement age, voters will be defrauded.

The decision to change it came so late that it remained before voters in the primary. Although the results did not count, voters narrowly defeated it, 51 percent to 49 percent.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs declined to comment.

The state’s lawyers wrote in the new filing that Cortes, a Democrat, never determined that the wording used during the primary election was somehow flawed.

“Rather, the secretary recognized that there is more than one way to draft the ballot question,” they wrote.

The next deadline faced by state and county elections officials will be Monday, when the first round of what will total about $700,000 in advertisements must appear in Pennsylvania newspapers. The wording for the second round of required advertising is due Aug. 29, the third round Sept. 26.

County elections officials must start mailing out oversees and military absentee ballots by the end of August, and have to complete that process by Sept. 23.

The Department of State’s response to the lawsuit also argues that Castille, Zappala and Sprague waited too long to file their legal challenge to the referendum.

“Petitioners waited to pursue relief at a point in the amendment process where they were almost certain to miss the first round of constitutionally required advertising of the joint resolution,” Cortes told the justices.

He also argued that the Legislature’s acts are presumed to be constitutional and that a “plain English” version of the proposed referendum will be posted in polling places, to address any confusion about what the ballot question means.

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