Federal judges are getting older—and more often senile.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 18 2011 7:01 AM

The Oldest Bench Ever

Extreme aging in the federal judiciary—and the trouble it causes.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Judge Richard Owen of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan gathered a group of lawyers in his courtroom in 2007 to discuss the possible leak of sealed documents in a business case. As the hearing got under way, Owen, then 84, asked for someone to explain this newfangled mode of communication the lawyers kept mentioning—e-mail. "It pops up in a machine in some administrative office, and is somebody there with a duty to take it around and give it to whoever it's named to?" he asked.

Some of the lawyers figured that Owen, whose chambers came with a mimeograph machine when he became a judge in 1973, was just behind the times. Others wondered if the judge's memory was failing him. After all, the most famous case in his long career—the back-to-back trials of Silicon Valley investment banker Frank Quattrone—had revolved around a single e-mail. Yet he now acted as though this was the first he was hearing about it. "He didn't understand what was happening in his own courtroom," said one lawyer present that day.

Owen's memory lapses popped up at critical moments. A month after his e-mail query, the judge stumbled badly when handing down a life sentence to drug dealer Darryl Henderson for his connection to a robbery crew that murdered three people in a Bronx apartment. The prosecutor had previously called Henderson "the key into that apartment," because Henderson was sleeping with the apartment's female tenant and conceivably helped the murderers get past the front door. In Judge Owen's mind, the metaphorical key became a literal key. He announced that the tenant had given Henderson "a key to get into that apartment," and seemed unperturbed when the prosecutor explained there was no such evidence.

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Then Owen expressed confusion over the relatively limited counts the jury had found Henderson guilty of and grew exasperated when the defense and prosecution tried to set him straight. Lawyers questioned whether Owen's mind was working well enough to be deciding matters of life and liberty. "Do I think age was a factor in some of his cloudy thinking? Yes," said David Patton, a defense attorney for Henderson. "There were many times when he seemed confused and exhausted." Owen declined repeated interview requests.

Life tenure, intended to foster judicial independence, has been a unique feature of the federal bench since the Constitution was ratified in 1789. Back then, the average American lived to be about 40 and the framers didn't express much worry about senile judges. "A superannuated bench," Alexander Hamilton said, is an "imaginary danger."

No longer. Today, aging and dementia are the flip side of life tenure, with more and more judges staying on the bench into extreme old age. About 12 percent of the nation's 1,200 sitting federal district and circuit judges are 80 years or older, according to a 2010 survey conducted by ProPublica. Eleven federal judges over the age of 90 are hearing cases—compared with four just 20 years ago. (One judge, a Kansan appointed by President John F. Kennedy, is over 100.) The share of octogenarians and nonagenarians on the federal bench has doubled in the past 20 years. The demographics of the federal bench have no analogue on the state courts, where judges mostly occupy their office for a term of fixed years and generally have mandatory retirement ages, often in their 60s or 70s.

Scholars like David Garrow of Cambridge University have looked at senility on the Supreme Court and called for a reconsideration of life tenure for its justices. But on the lower federal courts, where judges still wield enormous power, the failings that come with age have gotten much less attention. Sometimes, when judges stay on the bench longer than they should, no one questions their fitness. And most courts have no systemic way to deal with judges with age-related cognitive problems. "We are the worst fraternity in the world about this," said Judge Boyce Martin, chief judge of the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals from 1996 to 2003.

For many older judges, no doubt, experience is a virtue. "My memory is not as acute as it was, [but] principles, I know, and my judgment is the same—it may be better," said U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, a Brooklyn legend at 89 and one of the nation's most respected legal minds.

But judges of advanced years are clearly at increased risk for trouble with memory and cognition. According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 13 percent of Americans over 65 have Alzheimer's and nearly half of those 85 and older develop it or suffer from dementia.       

The judiciary does not assess the competence of its senior judges. The courts have no formal policy requiring, or even recommending, that judges receive medical checkups or consult with geriatricians. Instead, the institution relies on other judges to monitor colleagues, and, working discreetly behind the scenes, to push out enfeebled judges gently. Judge Dee Benson of U.S. District Court in Utah, age 62, likened the process to persuading an elderly parent to stop driving: "How are we going to get grandma off the highway?"

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