MARCH 19, 2009
With lifetime appointments protected by the U.S. Constitution, many of the nation’s federal judges are too old to effectively do their job and a group of influential legal experts is proposing major reforms.
More than one third of the nation’s federal judges are 70 years old or older, according to a news organization’s recent survey, and some are being accused of making errors because of age and ailing health. Most states force judges to retire at 70, but federal judges are appointed for life and often stay on the job well past their prime.
An example is an 86-year-old senior judge in the Southern District of Florida singled out in a case involving a retired pilot. Appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1977, the judge (William Hoeveler) has suffered a massive stroke, undergone heart and hip replacement surgery and needs help getting to the bench.
Pointing out that people decline with age and that Hoeveler should be forced to retire, the pilot involved the lawsuit Hoeveler presided over has filed court documents claiming the judge’s age and ailing health led to mistakes.
Some older judges benefit from a congressionally created “Senior Status” that allows them to keep their salary with a scaled-back workload. Not all who qualify participate, however. Judge Wesley Brown in Wichita Kansas continues to hear a full case load even though he’s nearly 102 years old.
The only way to remove a federal judge is through congressional impeachment, which has only happened 13 times since 1804—mainly for criminal conduct—and is unlikely to occur simply because of age or ill health. Who cares if they’re lucid, the U.S. Constitution says federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior” and never be forced to retire.
The last judge to be impeached by the House of Representatives was Mississippi’s Walter Nixon for perjury in 1989. Less than a year earlier, South Florida Judge Alcee Hastings was impeached for perjury and conspiracy to obtain a bribe. Hastings went on to represent the Sunshine State in the U.S. House and has become one of Florida’s most prominent black politicians.
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