Lawmakers introduce bills seeking to remove age limits

Avoyelles Parish resident Ronald McDonald took a break from his justice of the peace duties in March, flew first class to California and hopped into a limousine.

He took a spin down Sunset Boulevard, the street immortalized by the 1950 film noir classic — Sunset Boulevard about a silent movie star past her prime. Like Norma Desmond, McDonald was ready for his closeup. He and other real life Ronald McDonalds from around the country filmed a commercial for Taco Bell.

Back home in Louisiana, McDonald is entrenched in a battle for a far less glamorous gig.

The state says 78 is too old for him to keep working as a justice of the peace.

Like constables and judges, justices of the peace cannot sign up to run for office unless they are younger than 70.

Justices of the peace preside over small claims cases, perform marriages, do limited notary work and handle evictions. Constables serve eviction and civil suit papers. Like judges, justices of the peace and constables are elected officials. There are 776 justices of the peace and constables in Louisiana.

“Saying ‘Hey, Grandpa’ we don’t need you anymore is what gets me,” McDonald said.

Several bills moving through the Louisiana Legislature would remove the mandatory retirement age for justices of the peace, judges and constables.

For the judges, the elimination would require amending the state constitution. For justices of the peace and constables, only legislators’ approval and the governor’s signature would be required.

The bills left a House committee last week. They could be heard on the House floor this week.

In the proposals’ corner is AARP Louisiana.

“No worker deserves to be ousted from their job, passed over for a promotion or deprived of access to opportunities because they are older. Our hope is that nobody ever has to hear the words, ‘You’re too old — and you’re fired,’” said Andrew Muhl, director of advocacy for AARP Louisiana.

Raising concerns is the Louisiana Justice of the Peace and Constables Association.

Association President Connie Moore told legislators Thursday the retirement age for justices of the peace, constables and judges should be consistent. Then she characterized a constable’s job as potentially dangerous.

“Serving papers isn’t an every day, ordinary thing. Any day that you go out and try to serve an individual you’re going to encounter something that you’re not going to know about. We have to evict people all the time. We have to evict convicted felons all the time. It’s very important that a law enforcement officer can protect themselves,” she said.

Legislation made the rounds last year to abolish the mandatory retirement age for judges. The bill stalled in the House.

This year, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, sponsored House Bill 96 to revisit the issue. He described the restriction as an artificial age limitation that needs to go. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 11, already cleared the state Senate.

“People should be allowed to serve in accordance with their ability,” state District Judge Janice Clark, of Baton Rouge, told legislators.

State Rep. Sherman Q. Mack, R-Albany, filed House Bill 237 to remove the mandatory retirement age for constables. He said constables basically serve eviction orders.

Moore said constables’ jobs are more complicated than that, which is why her association requested the age limitation nearly a decade ago.

She said a Texas constable was shot and killed serving an eviction order. In Washington Parish, Moore said, a man threatened to throw a chair at a constable trying to serve a civil suit.

“We actually did have a constable that was re-elected a number of years ago up in north Louisiana who was actually in a nursing home,” Moore said.

State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, filed House Bill 989 to remove the retirement age for justices of the peace. “It’s very difficult to get people to run for these positions,” he said.

McDonald made the trip to the State Capitol last week when HB989 went before the House Judiciary Committee. He testified in favor of the bill, then swung by the Capitol’s cafeteria for lunch.

“I feel like I can still have a lot of good years,” McDonald said. “Don’t say, ‘Sorry, Grandpa. You can’t play anymore.’”

The next day, McDonald, a retired police officer, said he only makes $300 a month in base pay as a justice of the peace but enjoys the job. He mediates disputes over the telephone.

Other times, he heads to the town hall in Plaucheville, where he pulls a table and a couple of chairs together into a makeshift courtroom. “I do this to help people. The big majority of the stuff we do is saying, ‘Can we work this out?’ And we work this out,” he said.

McDonald comes up for re-election in November.

If the legislation fails, McDonald could just do what he did during the last election. He signed up — age 72, two years over the age limit. No one ran against him, and no one made any noise about him being too old.

“I put my name down and got the job,” he said. “No one really wants the job.”