Will raising New Jersey’s mandatory judicial retirement age ease the shortage of judges in the state’s courts?
A pair of measures pending in the Legislature would raise the mandatory retirement age for New Jersey judges, which now stands at 70.
And supporters think having judges stay on the job a few more years could be a remedy to the current shortage of Superior Court judges.
Introduced in December 2022 by Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Hunterdon and Mercer, S-3423 would increase the retirement age to 75 for justices on the Supreme Court and judges in the Superior Court and Tax Court, as well as administrative law judges and Workers’ Compensation Court judges.
And A-3098, introduced in March 2022 by Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex and Morris, would change the retirement date from 70 to 72 for all the same groups, as well as county prosecutors.
‘The Time Is Ripe for This’
Turner views her bill as a remedy to the current judge shortage.
“The time is ripe for this because we have an all-time high in terms of judicial vacancies in the state. At the same time, I’m hearing from constituents who are complaining that it’s taking an inordinate amount of time for their cases to be heard in court. And we all know justice delayed is justice denied,” Turner said.
“We’ve got to do everything that we can to fill these vacancies,” Turner said. “One way would be to change the retirement age.”
Turner noted that the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and federal judges have no mandatory retirement age and that people are living longer. She added that her bill would reduce the court’s need for recall retired judges, who continue to serve while collecting a pension as well as additional pay for their hours worked.
And her bill would reduce the burden on the state’s pension system for judges, Turner said.
“We have one of the worst pension funds in terms of the pension liability. If we keep the judge there for an additional five years, it will strengthen their pension fund. We know … when these judges retire on recall, they receive a pension and they get paid to be on recall, so they’re more or less double dipping,” Turner said.
McKeon’s bill was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee in May 2022 and now is under review by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee. He could not immediately be reached for comment. Turner’s bill has not been referred to a committee.
77 Judges on Recall
New Jersey’s Superior Court has 65 vacancies, out of 463 authorized judgeships, for a 14% vacancy rate.
Another 77 judges are now serving on recall.
The current level of vacancies is a bit lower than the 75 empty judgeships the judiciary had in February 2021, when Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote to Gov. Phil Murphy, then-Senate President Steven Sweeney and then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari urging them to nominate and confirm a “significant number” of new judges.
To change the mandatory retirement age of justices and judges, the Turner and McKeon bills would require voters to approve a referendum revising the state constitution after the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
Changing the retirement age for the other positions would not require a public referendum.
The measures also would not change pension eligibility rules, and judges wishing to retire at 70 would still have that option if they are eligible.
But getting voters to approve such a measure could be an uphill battle.
In Pennsylvania, the judicial retirement age rose to 75 in 2016 after voters approved a constitutional amendment.
But Pennsylvania is an outlier, and voters have rejected measures to raise the judicial retirement age in seven other states that held votes on the issue since 2011, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Those states where voters rejected a higher judicial retirement age are Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Wyoming.
Among states with mandatory retirement ages for judges and justices, 70 is the most popular age, according to the NCSC. Other states have chosen 72 or 75 as the mandatory retirement age, or 90, in the case of Vermont. Another 18 states have no mandatory retirement age for judges.