By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Setting a mandatory retirement age for judges isn’t a priority, the Republican lawmaker floating the idea said Thursday, adding that details of any proposal remain very much in flux as he looks for enough support to pass it.
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said in an interview that he still wants to pass a bill setting a mandatory retirement age this session, but he is focused on other issues now. The idea to force judges age 75 and over to retire has generated a lot of attention, in part because it would force three of the seven current members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, to step down.
But Knudson said he’s open to changes, like allowing those who are currently judges to be exempt.
“In order to get it passed, it may require having some recognition that a lot of people feel there should be grandfathering,” Knudson said. He’s also considering raising the mandatory retirement age to 85 or even 90.
Any proposal would have to pass both the Assembly and Senate, which are both controlled by the Republicans, and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before becoming law. Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, did not immediately respond to an email seeking the governor’s opinion on the issue.
Knudson said he felt compelled to act because a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1977 required the Legislature to set a retirement age of at least 70, but it never followed through.
An Assembly committee on Thursday heard testimony on another measure affecting the Supreme Court. The constitutional amendment, which passed the Legislature last session, would change the way the chief justice of the Supreme Court is chosen.
The measure would have to pass the Legislature again this session, and be approved in a statewide vote, before it gets added to the constitution. Depending on when it passes the Legislature, it could be on the April 7 ballot.
Under the proposal, instead of having the most senior member automatically get the position, the justices would choose who would be chief justice. Opponents say it’s designed to oust Abrahamson, a liberal who has held the post for 18 years.
Abrahamson, who is 81, opposes both measures.
The proposals have also become fodder in the current race for Wisconsin Supreme Court between Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and challenger James Daley, a Rock County Circuit Court judge. The election is April 7.
“It is the personal opinion of Judge Daley that the state Supreme Court justices should have the right to choose the chief justice, but he believes the voters must make that decision,” his spokesman Brit Schiel said.
Daley, who is 67, also opposes setting a mandatory retirement age, saying voters should decide whether a judge is competent to hold office.
Bradley released a statement on both the mandatory retirement proposal and chief justice selection measure.
“The real question is whether the legislative proposals can retroactively undo the vote of the people of Wisconsin who elected a chief justice and justices for 10-year terms,” she said. “To suggest that the legislature can or should adopt either measure appears to elevate politics over law.”