Florida judges ask to have mandatory retirement age raised

— If longtime Palm Beach County Judge Nelson Bailey had his druthers, he'd seek another four-year term in August.

But for Bailey and dozens of other judges statewide, druthers don't matter. He has to abide by the law.

According to a 39-year-old provision in Florida's Constitution, state judges must retire once they hit 70. Because Bailey will turn 70 soon after his fifth term would begin in January 2013, there's no reason to seek re-election.

Bailey is the only Palm Beach County jurist who will be blocked from seeking re-election next year, but the restriction will affect three judges who will be on the ballot and a half-dozen others who will be nearing 70 when their terms are up in coming years.

"We're losing a lot of good judicial talent because of this law," said Bailey, a fixture in the Belle Glade courthouse who is perhaps best known for giving talks on Florida history, often astride a horse.

While Bailey's view could be considered self-serving, he isn't alone.

Bills filed in the state House and Senate would lift the mandatory retirement age for judges by five years, allowing them to remain on the bench until they're 75.

Supporters say they worry that the legislature, which last year seemed intent on punishing the judiciary, will be loath to pass any measure that could be perceived as sympathetic toward judges.

However, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, said they believe their identical bills have a good chance of passing after the session begins Jan. 10. If their predictions are correct, voters in November would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment raising the age limit for judges.

The uncertainty is creating strange election quandaries for local judges.

Judge Fred Hazouri, a former county circuit judge, has served on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal for 13 years. At 68, he said he had begun preparing psychologically to leave the bench at the end of 2012 instead of standing for merit retention in November. Even if he were retained, he would have to resign when he turns 70 seven months later.

Still, he said, if the legislature passes the measure, he may alter his plans. "I still have some good years in me," he said.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez, 67, isn't so conflicted. While he has drawn a challenger, he said he won't step down even though the age limit would force him to retire two years after the election in August, when local judicial races are held.

"I love my job," said Alvarez, who presides over juvenile court. "After 18 years, I can't wait to get here. I've got so many things left to do for these kids."

Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy, 66, also plans to seek re-election although he would have to step down in September 2015 when he hits the mandatory retirement age. The current law allows judges to remain in office past their 70th birthdays if they have completed half of their terms. McCarthy misses that deadline by three months.

Circuit Judge Stephen Rapp also would turn 70 while in office if he decides to seek another term. Unlike McCarthy, he will have completed more than half his term by the time he hits the magic number. Rapp didn't return a phone call about his plans.

The age limit that was adopted in 1972, when the average life expectancy was 71.2 years, no longer makes sense, supporters said.

"It's archaic and anachronistic," Sen. Simmons said. "The fact of the matter is that people today are productive well into their 80s and 90s."

While Simmons said he would favor adopting the federal system, in which judges can stay on the bench until they die, Nehr said there should be some limits.

"I don't want a 99-year-old deciding my case," he said. But he said there is no evidence people become incapacitated at 75, much less 70.

Simmons said voters or the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission can remove incompetent jurists.

"It's not a problem we're having of judges being 70 and senile," he said. "The problem is we need experience on the bench."

Even attorney Jaimie Goodman, who is running against Alvarez, said the retirement age should be raised. He said he's challenging Alvarez because Alvarez would be unable to complete his term and the governor would have to appoint a replacement. Judges, Goodman said, should be elected.

McCarthy said roughly 75 percent of all judges in the county, including him, were appointed and subsequently re-elected.

Attorney John Howe, president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, said other officeholders don't face age restrictions. Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson is 83. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ran for president in 2008 when he was 72.

Former 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Gary Farmer said he had mixed feelings when he was forced to retire last year.

"I had misgivings about judges staying too long" and becoming jaded, said Farmer, who practices law with his son. "But I wasn't ready to leave just then. I was having too much