Retirement age for judges goes to voters

Voters will be asked in November if judges should continue to be on the bench beyond the age of 70.

A proposal to amend the state’s constitution to repeal the mandatory retirement age for judges passed both houses of the Legislature last week.

The constitutional question will be put before the voters this fall.

“It goes on the ballot for the general election,” said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st District. “Now, judges are required to step down at age 70. If the voters pass it, then they will no longer be required to retire at 70.”

She said the proposal to amend the constitution has to do with age discrimination.

“It is a form of age discrimination. I think we should do away with it,” said the Democrat from the Waianae Coast on O‘ahu.

Hanabusa is the chairwoman of the Senate’s Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, and majority leader of the Senate. She introduced the proposal at last year’s legislative session. It was carried over to this year.

Hanabusa said judges were not able to speak up about the proposal because of the state Judiciary’s code of judicial conduct.

“They are not able to engage in any political activities, and they are not able to advocate for themselves. Whether they like it or not, they were not able to weigh in on it,” said Hanabusa.

She said Gov. Linda Lingle cannot veto what the lawmakers passed.

“The governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment. She does not have the ability to veto,” said Hanabusa.

Lingle opposed the proposal.

“We encourage people to vote against the amendment because it is not in the best interest of the people in the state. It would make it more difficult for women and for certain minorities to have access to opportunities to become a judge,” said the governor.

The provision that judges have to retire has been in the state’s Constitution since statehood.

Lingle said at the time the current law was put into effect there were very few women who were in law school, and fewer who were in a position of becoming a judge.

“When you expand the time, you expand the age. You basically freeze the positions for people coming up,” she said.

Lingle said the amendment would change the rules for judges who came onto the bench with the understanding that they would serve until the age of 70.

“We don’t oppose making it prospective among those coming into the Judiciary. We think that would work. But to change the rules for those who came in under the current system is just not fair,” said the governor.

In the language of Senate Bill 995, the experience, wisdom and skills of older individuals should be valued and respected, particularly in the workforce.

The bill shows that the antiquated notion that all individuals are no longer mentally or physically fit to be contributing members of the workforce once they reach a certain age must be abolished.

The bill says judges and justices have a wealth of knowledge and experience in interpreting Hawaii’s laws that is invaluable to the residents of the state.

• Cynthia Kaneshiro, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or ckaneshiro@kauaipubco.com

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