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Sun Gazette: Retired Justice: Mandatory Retirement for Judges Makes Little Sense Print


Created:  Thursday, May 9, 2013  11:45AM


Advocates for ending, or easing, Virginia’s mandatory-retirement rules for judges have found an ally in someone who knows about leading a fulfilling life in his golden years.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says Virginia’s requirement that state judges step down at age 70 is “a most unfortunate rule to follow.”

“Senior citizens . . . continue to be capable,” Stevens said at the May 8 meeting of the Arlington Committee of 100, where he was the featured speaker.

Having turned 93 last month, Stevens spent more than three decades on the Supreme Court, retiring at the age of 90 in 2010. He is the third-longest-serving justice in court history – a lengthy tenure that never would have happened had the federal judiciary operated under the same rules as Virginia’s courts.

The question about mandatory retirement was posed to Stevens by Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th), who for several years has proposed legislation to raise the retirement age for judges in the commonwealth.

“Seventy is the new 60,” Hope said at the forum, while acknowledging that his efforts have not gained traction among many members of the General Assembly. At one point, a bill to ease the retirement age passed the state Senate, but was stymied in the House of Delegates; in more recent sessions, neither house has voted to support changes to the status quo.

Virginia judges are appointed – although the technical term is “elected” – by the legislature for terms of six years for General District Court judges and eight years for Circuit Court judges. But even if a judge is in the middle of a term, he or she must step down from the post at the end of the month of turning 70.

It is, Stevens opined, an “arbitrary rule that’s not in the public interest.”

Ironically, some of those very same jurists turn around and begin lengthy service as substitute judges. Such has been the case with Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Kendrick of Arlington, who although being forced to retire at 70 continues to hear cases in courtrooms across Northern Virginia.

Stevens was appointed to the high court in 1975 by President Ford and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 98-0 vote. Upon his retirement in 2010 at the age of 90 years and two months, he was just eight months shy of the all-time age record for a Supreme Court justice, set by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1932.

Stevens could have gone on as long as he wished, since there is no mandatory retirement age for federal judges. Some have continued hearing cases after their 100th birthdays.

Stevens told the Committee of 100 audience that while he loved the job, he decided to retire after finding himself having difficulty reading a dissent from the bench in a controversial case.

“Everybody, at my age, realizes you’re not quite as young as you used to be,” he said.

His recommendation? “Quit while you’re still able to do the work.”

Stevens gave a brief, amiable discourse, then fielded questions on issues ranging from controversial legal cases to the chief justices he had worked under.

The event brought out one of the largest crowds of the year for Committee of 100 members, which didn’t surprise some of those in attendance.

“Can you find a better human being to live up to the word ‘justice’?” asked retired Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul Sheridan, who introduced the speaker and praised him as representative of the “intelligent, productive, caring leadership at the top of our judiciary.”

“I am kind of in awe of him,” Sheridan said.