- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania officials went to court in a battle over the wording of a ballot question that, in less than seven weeks, would let voters decide whether to raise the mandatory retirement age of the state’s judges by five years.

On Sunday, top Senate Republicans sued and asked the state Supreme Court to act swiftly to remove what they called unnecessary and confusing wording written by state elections officials that lawmakers never approved.

The state attorney general’s office responded Friday, and asked justices to dismiss the case.

Granting the Senate Republicans’ request would eliminate information that is helpful to voters, the attorney general’s office wrote, and it said the Senate GOP had waited an unreasonably long amount of time to file the complaint.

Plus, changing the wording at this stage would make it impossible to get it on the April 26 primary election ballot because of constitutional requirements to advertise it at least three months in advance, the attorney general’s office wrote.

In any case, the attorney general’s office said, state officials had complied with legal requirements to advertise the ballot question at a cost of $1.3 million, starting in January.

Court officials could not say Friday whether the Supreme Court would take the case or, if justices rule on it, when they would act.

Both the House and Senate have signed off, twice, on the ballot question to change the Pennsylvania Constitution, and its approval is undoubtedly of particular interest to the state’s 1,029 judges and justices.

Under the constitution, judges and justices currently must step down by the end of the year in which they turn 70. The constitutional amendment would move the age to the end of the year in which they turn 75 and almost certainly give a new 5-2 Democratic majority on the Supreme Court a longer span.

Twenty judges will turn 70 in 2016, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The chief counsel to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he wondered whether the wordiness of the ballot question is “an attempt to elicit a ‘yes’ vote.”

Even so, Scarnati’s chief counsel, Drew Crompton, said Republican senators support the ballot question.

“We think it’s decent policy, but we don’t want people tricked into voting for it,” Crompton said.

The Senate GOP’s lawsuit said the 69-word question written by state election officials inserted confusing wording about the Supreme Court and magisterial district judges, and an unnecessary statement about the current mandatory retirement age that is better left to an explanatory statement provided to voters and written by the attorney general’s office.

The trimmed-down question suggested by the Senate GOP is 35 words.

Counties likely will not start printing ballots until at least the end of March because of ongoing court challenges to the eligibility of various candidates for office, elections officials said.

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