A Republican lawmaker raised the prospect of setting a mandatory retirement age for judges during an exchange with the chief justice of Wisconsin's Supreme Court yesterday.
The exchange came as Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was testifying before the legislature's Joint Finance Committee about the budget for Wisconsin's court system. Hudson Assembly Republican Dean Knudson pointed out to Abrahamson that Wisconsin's constitution says the legislature "shall" set a retirement age for judges.
Knudson: 33 states have [an age limit], and it ranges from age 70 to 90.
Abrahamson: I like the '90' part. <laughter>
The laughter there is because Abrahamson is 79. The chief justice went on:
"If you do change the mandatory, you should grandmother me in."
The exchange was cordial, but it's not the first time Republicans have at least discussed the prospect of a move that would chip away at Abrahamson's power. A bill introduced last session would end the longstanding practice of choosing the court's Chief Justice by seniority, letting justices vote for chief justice instead. Abrahamson joined the Court in 1976 and has been its chief justice since 1996.
Data from the National Center on State Courts suggests most states with retirement ages for judges set them between 70 and 75. But a report in the publication Stateline found that in at least 10 states, legislators are considering raising or eliminating their judicial retirement ages, citing longer lifespans and concerns over turnover.
Below, the full exchange between Knudson and Abrahamson.
An exchange between state GOP Rep. Knudson and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson on mandatory retirement ages for judges, 3/21/2013
State Rep. Dean Knudson: Like you, we all took an oath to support the constitution of the state of Wisconsin, and I realize time is short today, and you may not be prepared at all for this, so when you stop by my office, one thing I'd like to talk with you about is Article 7, section 24, where it says, "the legislature shall set a mandatory retirement ages for judges." Thirty-three states have one, and ranges from ages 70 to 90, and ...
Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson: I like the "90" part. «laughter»
Knudson: And you've mentioned a couple of times, constitutional obligations, and I just ... what I'd like to talk with you about is, should we pursue repealing that section of the Constition through amending the constitution, or if you would give me some input on that, I would really appreciate it. I realize you're not ready for it, and our co-chairs are more than ready for us to move on, so if you don't care to answer at all, that's okay.
Abrahamson: Well, there is no mandatory retirement age on judges at the present time...
Knudson: I realize that, but what it says is the legislature SHALL set a mandatory retirement age... «crosstalk»
Abrahamson: OK, and they have not done that yet ... Well.
Knudson: We have not fulfilled that constitutional obligation.
Abrahamson: If you do change the mandatory, you should grandmother me in. «laughter» But I'd be happy to talk about the pros and cons, sir. We'll do that.