News From Wisconsin that May Apply Elsewhere

Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal. He recently wrote a piece for the Journal that is well worth reading. His observations may apply elsewhere.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging judges — or people in any profession — to retire by a specific age. Eventually, we will all need to take up gardening or bingo and let the young’uns take their shot at running the world.

But mandating a retirement age is silly, especially when Wisconsin is pretty loose with the requirements for elective office at the other end of the age spectrum. Basically, you have to be 18. For judges, you have to have at least five years as a licensed attorney.

Besides, increasing life expectancies and advancements in medical technology mean seniors today are more capable than ever of considering a complicated collective bargaining law or, say, placing their hands on another person’s neck in an alleged attempted throttling.

Last week, the state Supreme Court’s chief justice and, at 81, oldest member, characterized as anti-democratic an effort by state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, to exercise a 1977 constitutional amendment that appears to require the Legislature to set a mandatory retirement age of no younger than 70 for judges. Specifically, Knudson wants them gone by 75.

Shirley Abrahamson is also opposed to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the high court to elect its own chief justice. Now, the top spot goes to the justice with the most time on the court.

“To the extent that either enactment affects presently sitting judges and justices, it ignores and overturns the vote of the people,” she told this newspaper.

She makes a fair point.

Of course, the “vote of the people” is at least partially frustrated when the justices the people elect can’t pick their own leader. It’s also arguably frustrated by 37 years worth of inaction on a constitutional amendment approved by voters and the Legislature.

How that amendment got so wantonly ignored remains a mystery.

According to news coverage from the time, setting a retirement age was a noncontroversial part of a broader set of reforms to the state’s court system, also passed by referendum. This newspaper framed it as a way for lawmakers to raise the retirement age from what was then a constitutionally mandated 70 years old.

To further complicate matters, a 1984 law repealed the mandatory retirement age for judges. The problem is that no law can override a constitutional mandate, and drafting notes from when the legislation was being written suggest the legislation was constitutionally suspect.

After that, the question of mandatory judicial retirement ages appears to have fallen victim to the legislative version of, ahem, a senior moment.

Republicans who back a mandatory retirement age for judges will be accused of two things: ageism and — because the two oldest members of the Supreme Court are part of its three-justice liberal wing — playing politics.

They can’t do much about the second, but they can blunt the first by bringing in a young member or two who may have faced age discrimination, too – just on the other end of the spectrum.

Forced judicial retirements aren’t about discriminating against the old, they could argue, they’re about expanding job opportunities for the young!


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