TRENTON – New Jersey’s judiciary is short on judges but could get a lifeline through longer life expectancy.

An Assembly committee last week advanced a bill (A3165) that would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges and county prosecutors by two years, from age 70 to age 72. The idea still faces a number of hurdles and would need to be approved by voters in a referendum for it to apply to the state’s judiciary.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said the idea isn’t really about vacancies, though around 16% of judicial seats are currently unfilled.

It’s about life expectancy, McKeon said. When the retirement age of 70 was set in the 1947 state constitution, most judges were men and their average life expectancy was 64. It’s now 77 for the average American.

“Usually, people don’t get on the bench until they’re maybe in their 50s, so they’re really kind of warming up and coming up with that thing that we all know we learn from, and that’s experience and, adding to that, wisdom,” McKeon said.

McKeon said he’d be fine with a retirement age of 75 and has in a proposal at that level but thought the Senate – which gets to approve judges and is reluctant to yield its influence over those appointments – would be more likely to agree with a smaller jump.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, said “72 is young these days” and supports the possible change.

“Between the vacancies and life expectancy and advances in medical science and the idea that we like our attorneys who are appointed to judgeships to have experience,” Mukherji said.

“Just a couple of more years would allow also to make sure that we are retaining the highest-qualified judges and the quality of our bench,” he said.

Even if the bill were to pass, the retirement age for Supreme Court justices and Superior Court judges couldn’t increase until voters agree to amend the state constitution. But it could go up immediately for administrative law judges, workers’ compensation judges and county prosecutors.

Assemblywoman Victoria Flynn, R-Monmouth, isn’t sure it’s a good idea, saying that while there’s a need to address a vacancy rate approaching one in six seats, there’s value to turnover.

“There needs to be, and I think that’s what makes our judicial system better than a lot of the other ones, there is a fresh perspective given because we do have this mandatory retirement age,” Flynn said.

Flynn says if current judges stay in their posts longer, it would limit the opportunities that open up for women to break into the judicial branch.

McKeon said 17 states have no judicial retirement age, 17 use age 70 and the remainder are between ages 72 and 90.

The change might have a limited impact on the number of judicial vacancies, as many judges retire before reaching age 70 anyway, able to make more money in the private sector after completing their 10 years on the job that qualifies them for a state pension.

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The most direct way to address judicial vacancies is for Gov. Phil Murphy and the Senate to agree on appointments. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the nominations of 11 judges at its meeting Thursday, and they could get confirmed at the Senate session on May 26.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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