At the end of this month, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker will retire from her position on the bench, which she has held since 2006. Gov. Pat McCrory has already announced that current Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin will be appointed to fill the remainder of her term.
Parker ultimately didn’t have any choice in stepping down from the court. In North Carolina, judges and justices are forced to retire when they turn 72, which Parker did this month.
Forced retirement may seem strange to many people, but the General Assembly is tasked, per the N.C. Constitution, with setting the maximum age limit for service as a judge. No other elected office in the state faces a similar forced retirement age, and it raises interesting questions about the separation of powers, given that the legislative branch is in charge of imposing such limits on service in the judicial branch.
If such a rule were in place for the legislative branch, nearly 20 members of the General Assembly would be facing forced retirement this year and unable to stand for reelection. Though I doubt you would find many people willing to question their ability to continue serving their constituents as productive members of the state legislature.
Yet as a state, we do impose those limits on judges, even though they must stand for election just like members of the General Assembly, albeit every eight years in the case of appellate-court judges, instead of every two years as legislators do.
If the age limit is in place to ensure our judges remain lucid and thoughtful jurists, it would seem that having to stand before the voters of this state would also control for that. Given the choice, my presumption is the majority of voters in North Carolina would not vote for a judicial candidate that is mentally or physically unfit to serve on the bench.
Additionally, our state constitution allows for the removal of judges due to physical or mental incapacity by a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the General Assembly. So a procedure does exist for removing judges unfit for service prior to their next scheduled election.
In light of that, it seems interesting that North Carolina sets any age limit for judges. And in the year 2014, one could argue that 72 is a relatively young age at which to force someone out of office.
A bill was introduced in 2013 with broad, bipartisan support to raise the retirement age from 72 to 75 for judges, but it languished in committee and was never seriously considered.
There are countless arguments on all sides of the debate when it comes to how we select judges. Some argue for appointment, some for status quo with direct elections and some for a hybrid of the two with a gubernatorial appointment followed by a retention election. Many states do it differently and there doesn’t seem to be one perfect model for judicial selection, though they all have the same goal of a fair and impartial judiciary.
However, it seems that if we are going to trust the voters of North Carolina with deciding who our judges will be, as we currently do, then perhaps we should also trust them to decide if a judge or justice is too old to serve on the bench.
*Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education and a contributor to TheVoterUpdate.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.