Age and the Judge

U.S. District Senior Judge Malcolm Muir recently turned 95.  Many articles in the media celebrated his long and distinguished career, but none made the observation that should be as obvious as it is indelicate. Judge Muir should not be on the bench. He should probably not have been on the bench for the past decade. It is irresponsible for him to continue to be a federal judge.

Federal judges serve for life, and there is no mandatory retirement. We can argue about the point at which common sense and respect for the judicial process dictate that judges should voluntarily step down, for it is true that individuals age differently. They all do age, however. Wherever the line is, 95 is over it. Yet Judge Muir continues. Muir, who was appointed by President Richard Nixon, says he feels good and able, and there is no apparent reason to doubt him. Many elderly people, even those who reach his advanced age, maintain what is called “crystallized intelligence”: learned and stored information and vocabulary accumulated from education and experience. It also includes the application of skills and knowledge to problem-solving. Being a judge, however, also requires what is called “fluid” intelligence, which includes the abilities needed to process information: thinking, reasoning, rapid analytical ability, attention span, ability to remember. By the time anyone is 95, and usually quite a bit before that, fluid intelligence starts to decline. It may not do so sufficiently to seriously impair day-to-day activities, but being a federal judge is intellectually challenging work. It is almost—not quite, but almost—certain that Muir has some age-related impairment. He also clearly has more gray matter to lose than most.

This raises a difficult question of fairness and duty. Assuming Muir is not as able as he once was, when does that create an ethical duty to step down? When he can’t meet his own standards of performance? When he is diminished, but still more effective than most of his colleagues? Is it when he no longer is as good as an average judge, but far from the worst? Or should he wait until he can’t do the job at all? In this an aging judge is not much different from one with a steadily increasing substance abuse problem. Professional organizations recognize that alcoholism and drug addiction, like aging, are progressive diseases. They don’t, strictly speaking, become ethics problems until they cause the victim (if you don’t think of aging as having victims, I’ll give you my mother’s phone number) to begin failing at his or her professional obligations, or to unreasonably risk failing at them. Yet there is no consensus about at what point some diminished ability qualifies as “failing.” If Muir is still one of the better Federal judges, which is possible, how can we say he is failing?

This is how the judge is failing. He is failing because he is playing Russian Roulette with aging, just as an alcoholic who continues to drive or perform heart surgery or defend accused murders is playing Russian Roulette with the bottle. He has an obligation to quit before age-related decline causes him to make bad decisions that adversely affect people’s lives, but it seems that he is hell-bent on staying in his job until he can’t—and by that time, great harm may have been done. The responsible substance-impaired doctor has to check into a rehab facility before he kills a patient. Judge Muir says he loves being a judge, and can’t think of a better job. It will very  hard for him, after more than half a century of wearing judicial robes, to stop, but he needs to demonstrate his respect for the justice system he loves and has served so well by making the great sacrifice of giving up what he loves, forever.

There are qualities that I call “the activating virtues.Courage is the most critical one, and another is sacrifice. They are the qualities that sometimes have to be called upon to allow us to fulfill  other ethical virtues when we don’t really want to, or when doing so involves pain. Judge Muir needs to use courage and sacrifice now, to deliver on the ethical duties of responsibility, respect, fairness, and citizenship and the many values they encompass.

One more of the activating virtues is called for, and that is humility. Judge Muir has to accept that he isn’t like so many of the ancient guardians in mythology, who have a job assigned by the gods that no one else can perform, and who perform that job—rowing dead souls across the River Styx, for example—for eternity. He is not essential. There are younger men and women who can do his job well, and it is time he to accepted that they should.

The ethical professional knows when to quit. The 95 year-old judge needs to crown a wonderful career by doing the hardest the thing of all, because it is the right thing.

2 thoughts on “Age and the Judge

  1. This is a good read, and I can’t argue any points against what is written. With that said, I wonder if the article is a little narrow in scope. One question that would help me understand the scope is this:

    “Is suicide unethical?”

    Certainly if you have family that depend on you and friends that care for you, taking your own life is the single most selfish thing to do.

    I think most people agree that having meaningful connections, ambitions, and activities is the single most important factor in advanced age. If you are only living for yourself, then what are you living for? If this job is the only thing sustaining Judge Muir, and retiring would accelerate death, it is understandable that he would want to continue living his lifestyle that he was legally entitled. Even if doing so was at some point unethical, who would be the first to tell him he’s crossed that line?

    So who else is culpable in this unethical behavior? Lawmakers for not imposing a defined retirement age? Family and friends for not encouraging him to take another fulfilling position? (…perhaps they have.) Pages and Clerks who didn’t speak up and tell him he’s crossed an ethical line in continuing on? Administrators who failed to offer him a transition plan into retirement?

    I don’t know this judge from a hole in the wall, but it sounds like he may have kept himself so busy completing his job that he didn’t plan for the next stage of his life. But if his plan was to skip the next stage of his life – that might be unethical.

  2. If suicide is against the law, by definition it is unethical, especially for a judge. The judge’s personal problems are a matter for caring and empathy, but cannot take priority over his professional duties.

    In hindsight, we could identify ways to help avoid this situation: counseling, a general agreement on principles when the judge is young enough to be objective. In the end, however, the system has to count on professionals to be responsible. I have no problem with avoiding a mandatory retirement age in theory, but if judges won’t acknowledge the inevitability of decline, then the rules have to.

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