Sound judgment: Too soon to retire

An editorial in the Bucks County Courier Times

Posted: Tuesday, February 23, 2016 12:15 am | Updated: 1:14 am, Tue Feb 23, 2016.

What a waste it would be to force Bucks County Judge Alan Rubenstein from the bench. At 70, he remains sharp and vibrant, a jurist of impeccable credentials with vast institutional knowledge of Bucks County, not to mention historic accomplishments.

As district attorney, Rubenstein tried more cases than any prosecutor in county history. And he was the only county DA to be elected four times, a measure of how well he did the job and how much voters trusted and appreciated him. Indeed, they rewarded him with a seat on the county bench, a post Rubenstein continues to relish and is in no hurry to relinquish.

Given the chance, Rubenstein said he’d “stick around forever.”

Yet, Rubenstein and every judge across the state faces mandatory retirement at age 70. In Rubenstein’s case, this would be a travesty of justice — unless voters extend the mandatory retirement age. They will be given that chance on April 26, when the primary election ballot will include a referendum asking if judges should be allowed to stay on the job until age 75.

They should.

There’s no question that most judges remain capable of serving far longer. In fact, the state’s senior judge system allows retired judges to work on a limited basis until they’re 78. They are paid a daily rate of about $600 in that capacity versus an annual salary of $176,000, a bargain for taxpayers. Their availability also helps reduce backlogs and enhance just outcomes. Problem is, the restrictions imposed on senior judges make it difficult for them to follow cases through. And so the courts don’t get all that senior judges have to offer: comprehensive knowledge of the law and a perspective and temperament honed by years of experience.

This is how reporter James O’Mally described Rubenstein, whose work ethic includes moonlighting as a boxing judge: “The prosecutor-turned-judge, whose career has spanned a storied 43 years in Bucks County, comes across as a jurist in his prime — on point, thoughtful and confident, yet mellowed by the deepening of age.”

This is not a man ready to hang up his robes. Nor should he. And so we call on voters to pass the referendum.

That said, we also call on lawmakers to pursue another reform: ending judicial elections for state courts. Anybody who’s attempted to make an informed choice for seats on the state bench knows what a near-impossible task that is. Faced with a sometimes long list of mostly unknown candidates, many voters turn to the eeny, meeny, miny, moe method of selecting candidates. Or they pick names on the basis of ethnicity, sex or ballot position — thus the highly coveted top of the ballot.

Some voters perform their due diligence, of course, and read what they can about the candidates, which isn’t much. State law bars judicial candidates from speaking to issues. So we’re left to review credentials and experience, and bar recommendations.

That “informed” choice is not part of the formula for naming judges is both an irony and a scandal — something we’re quite used to here in Pennsylvania.