Can New Jersey Judges Become Too Old?

President Bill Clinton laughs with newly confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was confirmed by the Senate in August 1993 -- more than 21 years ago.  (J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)
President Bill Clinton laughs with then new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was confirmed by the Senate in August 1993 — more than 21 years ago. (J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)

There is always lament when a good judge is forced to retire just because he or she reaches an arbitrary mandatory retirement age.

Last month, a legislative committee advanced legislation that would increase the mandatory retirement age for most state judges from 70 to 75. Due to concerns about its political composition, the mandatory retirement age for New Jersey Supreme Court justices would remain at 70.

The mandatory retirement age for members of the judiciary is set forth in Article VI, Section VI, paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution. Therefore, any changes will require a constitutional amendment. While this is a significant hurdle, support for the change appears to be building.

In total, 32 states have laws requiring state judges to retire at a certain age, according to the National Center for State Courts. Most require judges to step down at age at 70 or 75. However, there is growing pressure to eliminate or increase mandatory retirement ages.

Supporters contend that while it is true that some judges will over stay their welcome, most judges are still willing and able to serve at the age of 70. In fact, many go straight from the bench to work in the private sector.

These skilled judges, who are often at the top of their game, are also sorely needed. As highlighted during committee testimony, New Jersey courts struggle with significant judicial vacancies and mounting backlogs. There are currently 53 judicial vacancies at the Superior Court level, and 77 retired judges have already been recalled to help out.

Even if mandatory retirement laws are kept in place, there is a strong argument that the age limits should be updated. Life has changed a lot from when many mandatory retirement laws were implemented. The average life expectancy today is 75 for men and 80 for women. By comparison, it was 66 and 70 in 1950, three years after the New Jersey Constitution set the current retirement age.

Federal court judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, which seems to work out for the most part. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 80 and one of the most influential members of the U.S. Supreme Court. She also isn’t ready to retire anytime soon, stating in an interview this summer that she wants to match the tenure of Justice John Paul Stevens, who left the bench at age 90 after serving for nearly 35 years.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs. Can New Jersey Judges Become Too Old?