Since 1965, Arkansas judges have been strongly — almost irresistibly — encouraged to retire at 70. They hope to abolish that semi-mandatory retirement age with a bill now before the legislature.
Present law says that any judge who has already qualified for retirement benefits and has reached the age of 70 loses those benefits if he seeks re-election. A 70-year-old judge who has not yet qualified for retirement benefits can run again. Since the law was enacted, only one judge has chosen to forfeit his retirement benefits so he could continue serving.
The Arkansas Judicial Council, composed of all the state judges and retired judges, is backing SB 201 by Sen. Bill Sample of Hot Springs to remove the age limit. Circuit Judge David F. Guthrie of El Dorado is one of the primary proponents of the bill. He notes that there is no similar maximum-age limit for the executive and legislative branches of government. The Arkansas Constitution sets the qualifications for all three branches, in fact, and the legislature cannot directly overrule the Constitution. But the legislature controls the purse, and in the case of the judges it used that power to indirectly set a maximum age. (It probably should be mentioned that judges work fulltime. Legislators do not. Both legislators and executives are limited in the number of terms they can serve.) There is no age limit for federal judges, and many serve long past 70.
Guthrie said he'd been told that the age-70 limit for Arkansas judges was adopted because lawyers in a certain town wanted to get rid of a certain judge. "I don't know whether that's true or not." He's looked through legislative records and found no report, no study of the matter. Seventy is strictly an arbitrary age, he said; voters should decide whether a judge is too old.
Guthrie also said that the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission now has authority to remove judges from office if they're unable to do the job adequately. That option wasn't available in 1965.
Former Judge P.K. Roberts of the 10th Judicial Circuit in Southeast Arkansas was the judge who chose to continue judging past 70 and forfeit his retirement benefits. But Guthrie said he understood that legislators later made an exception and reinstated Roberts' benefits. The amounts of judges' pensions vary. In some cases, a multiplier is used to determine the amount. In other cases, the pension is 60 percent of the salary. Circuit judges make $136,257 a year. Members of the Court of Appeals make $140,732. Justices of the Supreme Court make $145,204.
Guthrie said that one of the judges in his circuit, the 13th, was near being forced out by the existing law, and that was part of Guthrie's motivation, but he refused to say which judge it was. Besides Guthrie, the judges in the 13th Circuit are Hamilton H. Singleton, Michael R. Landers, Edwin A. Keaton, Robin J. Carroll and Larry W. Chandler. Chandler, of Magnolia, apparently is the one about to be forced out.
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