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August 4, 2009

Judges for Life: How Aging Affects Rulings

Speculation of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist’s retirement due to declining health in 2005 turned the nation’s attention to the controversial issue of lifetime appointments for federal judges. “Judging Aging,” an Annual Meeting program hosted by the _ Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements, offered varying perspectives on mandatory retirement.

When the Constitution was written, declaring lifetime appointments usually meant that a justice served until he was in his fifties, the average lifespan then. However, today life spans are much longer.

According to neuroscientist Wilfred G. van Gorp, many people face a noticeable mental decline at the age of 80. Additionally, older judges are more likely to use the same approach in their deliberations time after time, as opposed to considering new options that may be more efficient.

Despite these facts, moderator Delissa A. Ridgeway suggested that there are several advantages that older judges have that act as a counterbalance to their age, including a greater appreciation for the law, more life experience and greater maturity.  Van Gorp also acknowledged that older adults favor accuracy over speed, a crucial trait when handing down life-altering rulings.

While this debate over age continues, panelists agreed that judges should maintain optimal mental health so they can continue to deliver sound rulings.  They suggested tips on “successful” aging, such as aerobic exercise, which has been shown to positively affect cognitive abilities, and a healthy diet.

In addition to Ridgeway and Van Gorp, panelists included D. Brock Hornby, Cynthia Gray and Susan Riegler.

The Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary Improvement is developing best practices guide for aging judges, “The Aging in the Judiciary Project.” More information is available at the committee’s Web site.