High-ranking legislators and judges were perturbed after an age requirement forced Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Michael Golden to retire.
“Seeing him go off the court in his prime was a travesty,” state House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, said.
He was a lion, Supreme Court Justice James Burke said.
“It just didn’t seem like we ought to be losing good people for relatively arbitrary means,” Burke added.
Lawmakers on the House Judicial Committee want to eliminate the mandatory retirement age of 70 for state Supreme Court and district court judges.
The committee advanced a bill Tuesday to strike the requirement from law. Wyoming is one of 33 states with a mandatory requirement age for judges.
There is no age limit for circuit court judges.
If the Legislature does get rid of the age requirement, the Judicial Conduct and Ethics Commission has powers to remove judges who are unable to perform their duties.
“It could be a judge in their 50s,” said Ronda Munger, deputy court administrator with the Wyoming Supreme Court. “It isn’t necessarily precluded by senility requirements.”
The state has removed six judges in its history.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Laramie, introduced a similar bill two years ago that passed the House 69-1 but failed in the Senate. Zwonitzer is the principal sponsor on the new bill and expects opposition once again.
“It’s getting a little frustrating on the Senate side,” Brown said.
Another option for changing the law may be a different piece of legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie. His bill proposes changing the mandatory retirement age to 75.
If Zwonitzer’s bill passes the Legislature, it would require a constitutional amendment and would be on the ballot for voters to decide.
House Bill 101
The committee also passed a bill that would eliminate the state Supreme Court’s automatic review of worker’s compensation cases shot down by the district court.
The goal of the bill is to decrease the number of cases that would move on to the Supreme Court, said Joan Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.
Each worker’s compensation case heard by the Supreme Court costs the state $8,000, Evans said. The Supreme Court heard 20 cases in 2012. Workforce Services says the new legislation would decrease by half the amount of worker’s compensation cases heard by the court each year. Three justices need to approve the case before the court hears the case.
Lawmakers need to decide how important it is that workers have a right to have their cases reviewed by the state Supreme Court, said Tom Jubin, spokesman for the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association.
“The policy ought to be that you make sure to take care of injured workers,” Jubin said.
Worker’s compensation appeals cases in the Supreme Court aren’t just costly. They take up more time than anything else and they get more reviews than others, Zwonitzer said.
Documents given to committee members showed that the Supreme Court overturned 20 to 25 percent of the decisions made by the appeals court to deny worker’s compensation.
“That’s a significant number,” Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said. “The numbers show that the system is working.”
If the bill becomes law, there would be less of a chance that the Supreme Court would hear worker’s compensation cases where the plaintiff was denied damages by the district court, said Mark Aronowitz, director of Lawyers and Advocates for Wyoming.
“It is taking away the right of injured workers,” Aronowitz said. “I am concerned that people who are at the highest level of the judiciary can decline to hear issues that are important to everyone.”
Aronowitz offered an amendment that in the event of cases in which circuit and district courts reach the same decision, there wouldn’t be an automatic review. If the two courts disagree, the case would be up for review by the Supreme Court.
“Without the amendment, this bill does not help injured workers,” Aronowitz said.
Currently, after an on-the-job injury, Workforce Services decides if an employee is eligible for compensation. If the department decides the employee is not eligible, the department will pay for the employee to hire an attorney for a department-level hearing. If the employee loses in the hearing, the case can go to circuit court. If the employee loses, the case can go to district court and can continue all the way to the Supreme Court, with the state paying legal fees for both sides.
“If there’s egregious circumstances, I trust the Supreme Court will hear the cases,” Zwonitzer said.