Mandatory Retirement Ages: Leadership in Elected Office and the Judiciary

By FOCUS, a Leonine Business

Scrutiny over the age of elected officials isn’t new, but recently, the concept of age-related limitations has gained traction in government discussions, especially with incidents like the suspension of 96-year-old Judge Pauline Newman due to concerns about her mental fitness, the recent passing of 90-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s freezing spells over the summer.

On September 20, Judge Pauline Newman, a 96-year-old Washington-based U.S. federal appeals court judge, was suspended from hearing cases for a year due to concerns about her mental fitness. This decision, made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s Judicial Council, has intensified a public dispute with Newman asserting her continued capability and accusing her colleagues of age-related bias. Federal judges chosen by presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate are appointed for life, without a mandatory retirement age.

On the contrary, 31 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory retirement ages for state justices. This year, voters in Texas will weigh in on Proposition 13, the Increase of Mandatory Retirement Age for State Judges Amendment, on November 7. Currently the state constitution mandates a retirement age of 75 for state judges. If passed, the amendment would raise the age to 79, making it the second highest in the nation, trailing only Vermont where the retirement age for state judges was changed to 90 in 2003. It would also increase the minimum retirement age from 70 to 75. New Hampshire voters will face a nearly identical ballot measure in 2024, that proposes to increase the mandatory retirement age for state judges from 70 to 75.

In the legislature, questions about California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s mental capacity circulated for years, reports The New York Times, and her last months were marred by health challenges and a visibly frail appearance. Despite the evident toll on her health, Feinstein was resolute about remaining in office. Meanwhile, Kentucky Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been in the spotlight due to two notable incidents this summer where he appeared unresponsive. Although these concerning episodes have sparked serious health concerns, Senator McConnell also remains steadfast in his commitment to complete his term as leader.

According to a recent CBS poll, many Americans believe that while age can bring experience to elected office, concerns arise about older officials being “out of touch” or incapable past the age of 75. A significant bipartisan majority favors introducing age limits for elected positions. When asked about a specific age limit, a majority suggests a cutoff at age 70. Notably, while most Congress members meet these criteria, a third of U.S. senators and key presidential figures do not.

This isn’t just a public perception; Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, in announcing his decision not to run for a second term, voiced the need for younger leadership. The 76-year-old stated, “It’s time for a new generation of leaders.” His sentiment echoes the thoughts of many who believe it’s crucial to usher in a new generation to navigate the contemporary challenges our nation faces.

FOCUS will continue to monitor developments on mandatory retirement ages within state government.