The House today defeated Rep. Reginald Murdock’s bill to eliminate an age-forced retirement provision for state judges. The vote was 31-56, with five present.

The law currently says judges who turn 70 during a term of office forfeit retirement benefits if they run again. That’s a significant disincentive to running again. Judges can qualify for up to 80 percent of pay, ore more than $130,000 a year, on the retirement of circuit and appellate judges.

Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) argued against the bill on the point of retirement. He said the rich retirement was provided to offset pay that some judges thought too low. Now that pay has been raised substantially, he suggested judges were having it both ways. He also brought up legislative resentment to term limits, which don’t apply to judges. “If it’s good enough for judges to stay as long as we want to why can’t we stay as long as we want to.”

Rep. Mickey Gates (R-Hot Springs) also spoke against the bill, saying he’d seen an older judge nod off during a hearing. Mickey Gates is accused of multiple felonies for failure to pay state income taxes and has refused calls to resign from the legislature.

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Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), a civil rights lawyer, raised the issue of discrimination. He noted that Congress had passed a law against age discrimination in the 1960s. Today, we have presidential candidates with the “probability of success” as well as presidents older than 70. “Age is just an irrelevant consideration,” he said.  Walker is 82.

Rep. Grant Hodges noted that the Arkansas Supreme Court had rejected an age discrimination argument in a lawsuit over the retirement rule.

Murdock, who noted there are 18 legislators older than 70, argued that the bill provided parity for judges.

Older judges got some consolation today. The House passed Rep. David Hillman’s bill to give judges a few more months’ breathing room on avoiding the retirement rule. His bill, which goes to the Senate, says a judge who has not turned 70 on the day he or she is elected may run against without forfeiting retirement. Elections are generally in May, unless a November runoff is required, for a term to begin the following January. He said perhaps 5 percent of the state’s judges could be helped by the law — those who’d turn 70 between an election and the following January when a new term began.