Right Decision, Wrong Author

Ed Murnane Jun. 28, 2009, 7:28am

It is not unusual for justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to serve into their 80s. Appointment to the Court by the President of the United States is a life-time appointment and it is assumed -- and hoped -- that a justice will decide when it's time to step down.

Illinois residents don't have to rely on the good sense of Illinois judges to decide when they should step down because of age or any other factors. Our system of electing judges (although flawed) requires that supreme and appellate judges are subject to voter approval every ten years, and lower court judges must face voters every six years. It's rare, but judges have been voted off the bench, although not usually because of age.

Advancing age is becoming less of a factor in all facets of modern life. As medical care improves -- and the economy worsens -- people are capable of working longer and the true test of one's ability to perform is the performance itself, not the date of birth.

So we agree -- generally -- with the decision by the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn the law that set a mandatory
retirement age for state judges.

But why was the Court so insensitive that it selected the one justice who would be most personally and immediately affected by the ruling to write the opinion?

Justice Charles Freeman's ten-year term on the Court expires next year. Under the law (before June 18), Justice Freeman would not be eligible to seek retention next year. Now, because of the opinion he wrote, he is eligible to seek another ten-year-term at the current annual salary of about $190,000 -- or a total of almost $2 million.

Is it a ruling that has a direct and personal benefit to Justice Freeman? It certainly could be viewed that way and it's puzzling why the Court did not recognize the potential appearance of conflict of interest -- especially within two weeks of the Caperton vs. Massey ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning recusals by state judges when there is a potential conflict of interest resulting from campaign contributions.

The dissenting view in the ruling, written by Justice Lloyd Karmeier, is convincing and probably should have prevailed if only the facts were involved. But the underlying issue -- should people stop working at a certain age merely because of the date of birth -- is a broader issue.

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U.S. Supreme Court
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