NEW YORK — Some are old enough to recall pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh’s tickertape parade. Others can share vivid memories of World War II or the Great Depression.
But unlike most people their age, New York City’s federal judges prefer to strike one topic from the record: retirement.
“We don’t talk about when anybody’s going to quit or retire,” said John F. Keenan, an 82-year-old Manhattan judge. “Some of the best judges we ever had … they worked right up until they died.”
The federal judicial system has become a case study in how the country will cope with a graying America, where each economic crisis forces more people to work beyond 65.
Recent interviews with several lifetime-tenured judges and experts suggest people often can thrive when challenged to work into their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Nearly all the judges have one thing in common: no plans to drop the gavel on their careers. The trend caused the government in December to adjust its projection for planning purposes that federal judges retire by age 85. For New York, the expectation is now that only half will retire by then.
“Everybody kind of goes on the assumption that you’re going to crap out. Maybe you don’t have to,” said Robert Sweet, a Manhattan judge who is preparing for his 90th birthday. He skis two to three days a week when he’s at his Idaho getaway. He also ice skates and plays tennis.
The federal courts from coast to coast are workplaces where age is valued like nowhere else. Thanks to the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution guarantees judges jobs for life with full pay - whether they work or not. Many state judges must retire at age 70.
“The arbitrary idea of 65 now is insane, in terms of capacity,” said Judge Sweet, who’s had knee replacement and wears a hearing aid. “There are now increasing numbers of ways when things begin to poop out, there are curative things that make things better.”
Experts on the aging workforce agree.
“There’s no question that people who keep on working are happier and healthier,” said George Valliant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Harvard “Grant Study of Adult Development.”
Mr. Valliant calls mandatory retirement in many professions “really dumb.” The judges’ performance is proof that wisdom and the ability to see irony and paradoxes frequently improve with age, he said.
“They’ve got what’s called compensatory or reserve intelligence,” he said.
With aging, “You sometimes lose names,” said 90-year-old Judge Jack Weinstein. “You don’t lose the capacity for decision making and the capacity for analysis.”
Older judges benefit from having nothing to prove, added Mr. Weinstein, a World War II veteran appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the bench in Brooklyn more than four decades ago.
“You don’t care really what people think of you,” he said. “You’re not going anyplace. You’re doing it for the joy. And as a public service.”
Under the federal system, judges whose years of service and age add up to 80 can take “senior status.” That means they can choose a reduced caseload and keep chambers and staff of four, including up to three law clerks - often until death.
Wesley Brown, a Wichita, Kan., federal judge, worked regularly until he died last month at age 104. Appointed to the bench in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, Brown was six years older than the next oldest sitting federal judge.
A week ago, 77-year-old Roger J. Miner, a federal appellate judge in Manhattan, died of heart failure. His wife, Jacqueline, said an unfinished opinion remained on his desk in their Hudson, N.Y., home.
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