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State Sen. Steve Bieda discusses age limit for judges

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Thirty-two state judges, including Justice Michael F. Cavanagh of the Supreme Court, were compelled to retire in 2014 because of their age. Critics of the age limit say it is arbitrary and outdated. State Senator Steve Bieda, D-Macomb County, is set to propose for the second time that the limit be dropped or modified. Raised in Warren, Bieda received his bachelor's and two masters degrees from Wayne State University, and later earned his law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He was elected as State Representative for the 25th District in 2002 and then moved to the State Senate, being elected to serve the 9th District representing Macomb County in 2010 and again in 2014.

Thorpe: Briefly describe your proposed legislation for us.

Bieda: We would amend the state constitution to eliminate Section 19 Subsection 3, which provides that no person will be elected or appointed to a judicial office after the age of 70 years. My resolution would place the question on the ballot, because it is a constitutional amendment. It would require a two thirds majority in the House and Senate, which would put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

Thorpe: You also proposed similar legislation in 2013. What happened then?

Bieda: When it was introduced, it came out of committee and then ran into issues with Republican leaders. I believe it had to do with philosophical beliefs some of them had. I was never given a clear, articulated reason not to take it up. A "whip count" suggested I had the two thirds to get it out of the Senate, and I suspect that will still be there to get it out of the Senate at least. We're in the minority and the majority leadership has a lot of influence as to what comes to a vote. There's been a change in the leadership and I'm looking forward to having this reintroduced.

Thorpe: How big a role does increased life expectancy, better health care and more sophisticated mental screening play in your reasoning?

Bieda: They play a big role. This constitutional prohibition goes back more than 100 years, when life expectancy was much less. When you look at increased life expectancy and better health, 70 is now the new 50. A much different dynamic exists today. It's to the detriment of the courts, when you're pulling off experienced people based on an arbitrary date on the calendar. And, frankly, people have health problems at all different ages. We also have mechanisms in place, like the Judicial Tenure Commission, to remove judges when necessary. More sophisticated mental screening, better health care and increased life expectancy all play a role in the changes.

Thorpe: State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. has been quoted saying that the age requirement "is a wise safeguard set by Michigan citizens that actually protects the integrity of our judicial system." What might you say to persuade him to change his mind?

Bieda: At one time I think you could accurately say that the rule would do that. I might say that we could relax the age limit and create stronger safeguards to review judges at all ages. I'm not sure I could convince him one way or the other. And I'm probably not going to try!

Thorpe: You have been quoted as saying that you would be open to a compromise measure that would raise the current retirement age. Tell us about that.

Bieda: I personally would rather just get rid of the age restriction. At the federal level, there are no age requirements on judges. Any other elected or appointed official in the state doesn't face an age restriction. It's a very arbitrary number that only applies to a small, specific group of officials. I know some states have raised it by five or 10 years. If we were to raise it to 80, I might be more open to that. But, as I said, I would rather get rid of the age requirement altogether.

Published: Thu, Mar 26, 2015

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