Moorhead judge loses lawsuit, wants to keep working after 70

MOORHEAD -- On the verge of his mandatory and legally disputed retirement, Clay County District Court Judge Galen Vaa is fighting to continue his career after his next birthday.
Clay County District Judge
Clay County District Judge

MOORHEAD - On the verge of his mandatory and legally disputed retirement, Clay County District Court Judge Galen Vaa is fighting to continue his career after his next birthday.

The Moorhead judge will turn 70 years old March 5, 2018, and the Minnesota Constitution requires judges to retire the last day of the month they turn 70 - despite voters electing Vaa to a term that doesn't expire until 2021. He tried to dispute the statute, filing a lawsuit against Gov. Mark Dayton July 2016 in Clay County District Court, where he has served the past 16 years.

But last week, Ramsey County District Court Judge Robert Awsumb ruled against Vaa's argument that the state's mandatory retirement is unconstitutional. Awsumb said in his March 14 decision that Vaa's desire and ability to not retire next year is "laudable," but mandatory retirement remains the law of the land.

"I was disappointed by the district court's decision," Vaa said in a phone interview Tuesday, March 21, adding that he plans on appealing the court's decision within the next few days. "I hope that I get to a point where there's a decision made by the end of the year so if I lose I can get ready for retirement."

Legislative authority imposing mandatory retirement is not uncommon: there are 32 other states with similar laws, and the mandatory retirement age ranges from 70 in most states to 90 in Vermont, according to the National Center for State Courts.

In North Dakota, there is no required retirement age for judges.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has twice addressed the constitutionality of mandatory retirement, with two judges opposed to the law filing lawsuits in 1986 and 1990. In both cases the court upheld the law intended to facilitate orderly retirement. The cases provide a "binding precedent," Awsumb said.

But Vaa said those cases were "wrongly decided," and he is bringing legal claims that were not raised before. He plans on petitioning the state's appellate court for an accelerated review.

Previously he's tried to persuade the Minnesota District Judges Association to adopt a resolution raising the mandated retirement age to 73, 74 or 75, "but that hasn't been successful," he said.

"That's why I started this lawsuit," Vaa said. "Of course if I lose, nothing will happen. If I prevail the Legislature will have to make a decision."

If his appeal is unsuccessful, Vaa's position will be declared vacant next March, and Dayton will need to appoint a successor following Vaa's 70th birthday. Vaa was first appointed in 2000 by Governor Jesse Ventura and he was elected to six-year terms in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

The National Center for State Courts reports there has been growing interest in increasing or repealing mandatory judicial retirement ages with the advances made in modern medicine and average life expectancy increasing.

The history of statutory retirement laws for judges in Minnesota dates back to 1913 and the people of Minnesota first approved a constitutional amendment regarding retirement of all judges in November 1965. But it wasn't until 1973 that retirement went from voluntary to mandatory when the statute established a "normal" retirement age of 65, "early" retirement at 62 years old and mandatory retirement at 70.