Arkansas Supreme Court Upholds Age Limits for State Judges

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Contributed by Mason Boling

On June 23, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the state’s judicial-retirement statutes. Though ultimately a 5-2 decision, Landers v. Stone nevertheless comes to nearly 40 pages of heated debate due to a thorough opinion by Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson, two concurrences, and two passionate dissents.

The “Landers” of Landers is Judge Michael Landers who, along with three other circuit judges, filed suit against members of the Arkansas Judicial Retirement System (among others). State judges in Arkansas who run for a term of office after they’ve reached the age of 70 must forfeit their retirement benefits from the state, a policy developed by the legislature over half a century ago and noted in Arkansas Code sections 24-8-215(c) and 24-8-710(b). The statutes have been a source of controversy for several years. In Landers, the plaintiffs argued the system was unconstitutional.

The Court’s majority disagreed, upholding the lower court’s decision and describing itself as “join[ing] the unanimous voice of the courts in this country, including the United States Supreme Court, which hold that judicial-retirement provisions are constitutional.” Indeed, “age limits” for judges, both direct and indirect, are relatively commonplace in the U.S.

According to the Arkansas Constitution, new requirements for holding office cannot be imposed. However, the majority distinguished Arkansas’s judicial retirement policy from an outright “age limit,” stating that rather than imposing a new qualification, the statutes give judges a choice. They are allowed to seek reelection over seventy, but they choose to forfeit their benefits in doing so. To the majority, these benefits are “a matter of grace bestowed by the General Assembly.”

The plaintiffs also challenged the statutes under the U.S. Constitution. However, because age is not a suspect qualification and retirement benefits are not a fundamental right, the statutes only had to survive a “rational” level of scrutiny. This means that if the Court could find any rational basis for the law, it had to survive. Thus, the majority cited  the Supreme Court in stating that “it is an unfortunate fact of life that physical and mental capacity sometimes diminish with age,” and “it is not for the courts to reject” a law about age even if individual judges do not agree with such an assessment of their capacity.

As further reasons for upholding the law, the majority cited the need to “attain the highest possible standards for the judiciary,” to eliminate the “unpleasantness” of using disciplinary proceedings to remove disabled judges, and to provide “greater opportunities for younger attorneys to take the bench.”

Nonetheless, despite the strength of the majority’s opinion, the debate over Arkansas’s judicial retirement policy is by no means an easy one, a reality made clear by the two dissenting opinions in this case. Chief Justice Howard Brill described the choice between leaving the bench with full pension or running for reelection and losing it as “the classic Hobson’s choice.” He noted that the state already has a commission to deal with judges who are unable to carry on their duties and described the majority’s opinion, which would “force[]” Landers to leave the bench, as ignoring “the wishes of the citizens of six Arkansas counties.”

Justice Danielson, himself of an age to be affected by the legislation, was even more forceful in his disagreement. He stated the statutes “guarantee the departure of the most experienced and seasoned members of the Arkansas judiciary” and force retirement “because the General Assembly believes it knows better than the voters.” Overall, he said the provisions “constitute one of the most blatantly arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive laws that I have ever seen,” adding, “I do not profess to know what happens to a society that runs off its best and brightest public servants, but it cannot be good, and it certainly is not rational.”

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