Pulaski County courthouse Brian Chilson

If you’re wondering why three circuit judges in Pulaski County are running for lower-court positions, the answer for two of them lies at least in part in a state law that cuts off retirement benefits for many judges when they seek re-election at age 70 or older.

Circuit Judges Chip Welch, Mackie Pierce and Herb Wright are looking to move to district court judgeships in Tuesday’s elections. (In Arkansas, circuit courts are above district courts.) Welch is running against Perryville attorney Beth Burgess, Pierce is running against deputy prosecutor Jill Kamps, and Wright is facing off against attorney Robert Tellez.

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Why? For Welch, 73, and Pierce, who turns 70 in May, retirement rules and benefits are one factor, though Wright is younger at 61. (The Arkansas Times incorrectly reported Friday that Wright’s decision was based on age.)

Wright said he could seek two more terms in his current office but was encouraged to run for district court to improve efficiency of the traffic-court docket. “I was looking for a challenge at this point in my career,” he said.

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Circuit judges, like judges on the state Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court justices, are enrolled in the Arkansas Judicial Retirement System. Under a 1965 law upheld by the Supreme Court in 2021, any judge covered by the judicial retirement system who turns 70 while already in office may complete that term and keep retirement benefits. But when that judge’s term expires, he or she cannot seek re-election without losing those benefits.

District court judges, however, are exempt from that rule. Instead of the judicial retirement system, they’re covered by the Arkansas Public Employees’ Retirement System.

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It’s a matter of opinion whether the retirement law is a good one that protects the judicial system from aging judges who might be more prone to memory lapses or a bad one that reflects the age discrimination already prevalent in this country.

Burgess recently sent out a mailer attacking Welch’s decision to seek the lower office:

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Welch countered with a video posted on Facebook, which you can watch below:

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Pierce said Saturday that he’s running for district court “because I love my job. I feel like I do a good job for the people” and want to keep serving. … Everybody assumes it’s all about the money,” but it’s not.

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Still, he will turn 70 soon and would “forfeit 25 years of retirement” if he ran for circuit judge again, Pierce said. “I can’t afford to do that. … It would be economic insanity.”

“If I am healthy and my mind is as strong as it is now, I may run again,” Pierce said.

Welch said in an interview Saturday that he doesn’t want to retire and thinks he’s doing a good job. But he said, the Arkansas Legislature has “coerced” him to forfeit his retirement benefits because of the 1965 state law.

“There are a lot of folks who have to work, and I’m just one of them. I’ve worked since I was 13,” Welch said.

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“There’s the suggestion that because I’m older, I have to go home,” said Welch, who noted he has presided over cases involving sex, racial and age discrimination.

“With the grace of God, all of us have a chance to get old,” he said. “I believe that … trying to stop people from serving who can serve is age discrimination.”

Welch noted that the state’s Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission now can determine “whether a judge is crooked, … incompetent” or guilty of an ethics violation. “The need for an arbitrary age is not necessary,” he said. The commission was created in 1988, so this option was unavailable in 1965.

John DiPippa, dean emeritus and distinguished professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, offered some perspective about the practice of seeking lower office to protect judicial retirement benefits.

“On the one hand and on the surface, it appears to be gaming the system to squeeze out a few more years on the bench,” DiPippa said in an email Friday.

“On the other hand, however, it’s a perfectly rational move. The fault lies not with the judges who are running for different judgeships but with the state that created a system that punishes judges who stay in their seats beyond 70 years old,” he added.

“Suppose a company told its workers they would lose their retirement benefits if they stayed in their office but they could keep them if they moved to a different office on the same floor. We would applaud the employees for taking advantage of the opportunity but criticize the company for coming up with such a draconian but easily avoided policy,” DiPippa said.