The Philly Ballot Questions You’ll See on Election Day 2016, In Plain English
We know what you’re thinking: Who in God’s name cares about ballot questions when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are up for election? It’s true. The presidential race makes these proposals look as important as the choice between taking a nap and watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians. But the truth is, it will take just 10 minutes to learn everything you need to know about next week’s ballot questions. And one of them is kind of shady!
Below, we list the questions as you’ll see them in the voting booth, as well as how officials described them “in plain English.” Then we broke them down into really, really plain English.
Question 1: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?
In Plain English: The purpose of the ballot question is to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to require that justices, judges and justices of the peace (known as magisterial district judges) be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years. Presently, the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that justices, judges and justices of the peace be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70 years. Justices of the peace are currently referred to as magisterial district judges. If the ballot question were to be approved, justices, judges and magisterial district judges would be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years rather than the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70 years. This amendment to the mandatory retirement age would be applicable to all judges and justices in the Commonwealth, including the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, judges of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court, county courts of common pleas, community courts, municipal courts in the City of Philadelphia, and magisterial district judges. The ballot question is limited in that it would not amend any other provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution related to the qualification, election, tenure, or compensation of the justices, judges or magisterial district judges. The effect of the ballot question would be to allow all justices, judges, and magisterial district judges to remain in office until the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years. This would permit all justices, judges, and magisterial district judges to serve an additional five years beyond the current required retirement age.
In Really, Really Plain English: Wow, is that brick of text what passes for English among state bureaucrats? Let’s try that again: Pennsylvania currently makes judges retire when they turn 70. This ballot question asks whether judges should be required to step down at age 75 instead.
The argument for extending the state’s retirement age goes like this: The average life expectancy for humans like you and me is going up, and the public would benefit if more experienced judges were on the bench. If you’re worried about senile judges, don’t! There’s a disciplinary process that can remove ones who are losing their marbles. There are political effects to consider, too: If you’re a conservative, you might want to say “yes” to this ballot question because it would let Thomas Saylor, the 69-year-old Republican Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, remain on the bench for another five-plus years. Right now, he’s one of only two Republicans on the court. If you’re a liberal, you also might want to vote affirmatively because upping the retirement age would likely lead to a Democrat-controlled court when redistricting takes place in 2031. (Democrats are expected to control the court during the 2021 redistricting regardless.)
The argument for just saying “no” to the question is threefold. First, the question itself seems to be written in hopes of pulling a fast one on voters: It doesn’t mention the very important fact that there already is a state retirement age, which could lead some voters to believe that the proposed amendment would create one. In fact, when Franklin & Marshall pollsters asked the ballot question as is, registered voters said they supported it. But when they made it clear that the amendment would just extend the current retirement age, voters rejected it. Second, there should be more opportunities, not fewer, for younger judges to take office. And the disciplinary process for getting rid of bad judges cannot be trusted: The state’s Court of Judicial Discipline initially gave a pass to a Supreme Court justice caught swapping offensive emails. Lastly, judges who are over the age of 70 can currently offer us their wisdom by becoming “senior” judges, in which they still oversee cases, but only on a part-time basis.
Question 2: Should the City of Philadelphia borrow ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY-FOUR MILLION THREE HUNDRED THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS ($184,303,000.00) to be spent for and toward capital purposes as follows: Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development?
In Plain English: This ballot question, if approved by the voters, would authorize the City to borrow $184,303,000 for capital purposes, thereby increasing the City’s indebtedness by $184,303,000. Capital purposes means, generally, to make expenditures that will result in something of value with a useful life to the City of more than five years, for example, acquisitions of real estate, or construction of or improvements to buildings, property or streets. The money to be borrowed would be used by the City for five identified purposes, namely, Transit; Streets and Sanitation; Municipal Buildings; Parks, Recreation and Museums; and Economic and Community Development, all in specific amounts identified in Bill No. 160767 (approved September 9, 2016). City Council would have authority, by ordinance, to change the intended allocation of these proceeds.
In Really, Really Plain English: The city government wants to borrow $184 million to make capital upgrades to public property, mostly. The breakdown is as follows: $100 million for municipal buildings, $33 million for streets and sanitation, $25.7 million for parks, recreation centers and museums, $19.5 million for economic and community development, and $4.7 million for transit. (More information can be found on City Council’s website.) Proponents for the spending argue that it is a routine part of government operations and will improve public services. Critics say the city already has too much debt.
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