By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
HARRISBURG – The judicial system of recalling retired judges to temporarily fill vacancies on the bench is saving Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars, state court officials report.
It is also circumventing the state constitutional requirement that state judges answer to the voters for their performance, contends the political action committee The Majority Party.
“It’s a very serious problem, and I don’t think many people are aware of it,” said Tim Potts, a spokesman for the group, which advocates for more transparency in government.
Pennsylvania made $4.33 million in recall payments to 114 retired or senior judges last year, at the rate of $534 for every day served.
Art Heniz, spokesman for the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts, said the system saved taxpayers $9.8 million over the last three years because retired judges, including their pension payments, cannot make more than a sitting county judge.
County judges make $173,271 per year in Pennsylvania. The taxpayer savings results when recall judges fill vacancies at a cost below what sitting judges would receive in salary.
Judges’ pensions are calculated on years of service on the bench; those with longer tenure get larger payments when they step down from full-time duty. This, in turn, limits the number of days they can serve as recall judges without going over the salary ceiling.
Retired judges said that they continue to serve in order to stay involved in the justice system. In instances where they work more hours than the state has approved for payment, they said they donate their time.
Harold Woelfel Jr., a retired judge in Union and Snyder counties, substitutes mostly in special treatment courts for drug addicts and drunken drivers. The programs were launched when he was president judge in the counties. Woelfel volunteered to continue overseeing the treatment courts when he retired.
“I enjoy doing it,” Woelfel said. “We are one of only four accredited DUI courts in Pennsylvania. So we are doing something right.”
Mercer County Judge John Reed was forced to retire at the end of 2012 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 for sitting judges. But a state moratorium on interim judgeship appointments resulted in Reed remaining on the job as a full-time substitute at “half-time” pay, he said. “Being a judge is the greatest job in the world,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy being here.”
Once his successor is elected, Reed will continue to work as a retired judge. But he will then be eligible to serve in neighboring counties wherever a substitute judge is needed.
Mercer County President Judge Thomas Dobson said that the assistance provided by senior judges is vital, adding he’s never heard of problems associated with the use of retired judges filling in when vacancies occur on the bench or a special need arises.
That may be so, said Potts, but it is also contrary to the state constitutional requirement that judges in Pennsylvania face voters every 10 years to run against their record. He said some retired judge serve as recall judges for several years with no public scrutiny of their performance.
Recall judges cannot serve beyond age 80 in Pennsylvania. The State Supreme Court just this week affirmed the 70-year mandatory retirement age for sitting judges. But there are bills in the state legislature to change the retirement age to 75.
Potts also questioned the manner in which retired judges are selected for recall service. He said the presiding judges in the state court system select which retired judges to recall to fill vacancies or substitute for sitting judges in possible conflict of interest cases. He said this creates a selection system that undermines the rights of voters to elect state judges.
A better accountability approach, Potts said, would be financial support for enough full-time judges to handle the additional court load caused when judges retire.
Heinz, the spokesman for the state courts, said there is accountability now in that the presiding judge must explain why he selected a retired judge for recall and verify that the jurist is fully qualified to serve. Judges retired from the bench by the voters or who left office because of allegations of misconduct are not eligible for recall duty, said Heinz.