As anti-mandatory judicial retirement trends across 14 states, an Indiana state senator proposes a bill to eliminate his state’s current mandatory retirement age of 75 for state appellate judges. “We’ve got lawyers in their 80’s whose minds are steel traps,” he says in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “A New Lease for Old Judges.”
But steel traps? In today’s polarized political climate, partisans put more weight on what side of the political aisle a jurist sits — well before they consider whether to keep them around into their dotage. For the fervent liberal or conservative, a judicial “mind like a steel trap” is attractive only when it’s closed to the opposing side.
For a number of reasons, however, not the least being my belief in the axiom that power corrupts, I advocate consistently for term limits to rein in the powerful. Indeed, this is why I wholeheartedly agree with Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh’s assessment that for judges, “Age restrictions really are a proxy for term limits.”
So age restrictions are a good thing. Besides, even with politicians and judges acting more like aging rock stars who never say die, whatever happened to for every time there is a season?
Beyond arguing that there’s plenty of ‘gas left in the old tank,’ proponents of an ageless judiciary, also offer up the somewhat specious reasoning that because states have judicial disciplinary mechanisms in place to punish or remove judges, there’s no longer any reason to impose mandatory retirement ages on judges.
As WSJ reporter Ashby Jones explains, the mandatory retirement ages for judges were established “long before states had developed formal processes to get rid of judges who had become ill or suffered mental decline.”
But according to data gleaned by Citizens for Judicial Accountability, a self-described “nonpartisan citizens’ grassroots organization,” out of an estimated 10,000 judicial complaints it claims were analyzed by the American Judicature Society, “Statistically, only one out of a hundred complaints or 1% and probably less results in a determination.”
Rather than relying exclusively on the purported watchdog vigilance of judicial accountability commissions, if state lawmakers want to keep aging judges on the bench past 70 or until they drop — to safeguard the public’s faith in the courts against the potential of a mentally and physically enfeebled judiciary — lawmakers should follow 7th Circuit Federal Appellate Court Judge Richard Posner’s advice for “the nation’s premier geriatric occupation.”
So that things don’t just wander in and get mangled by a mind that’s become a rusty steel trap — after 70, Judge Posner recommends judges be required to take “a test of mental acuity every five years.”
Photo Credits: “Bear trap,” by Minnesota Historical Society at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution and share alike distribution; “Detail from Corrupt Legislation. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Main figure is seated atop a pedestal saying “CORRUPT LEGISLATION” at Wikipedia Commons, Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain; “Out of gas,” by 2nd2Nunn Photography at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution and share alike distribution.