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How old is too old for judges?

GN02SU63U.7Staff photographer
Corey Lowenstein - NEWS & OBSERVER
Chief Justice Sarah Parker thanks a waitress at The Mecca in Raleigh, where Parker had a retirement lunch last week.

Chief Justice Sarah Parker is retiring this week after 21 years on the N.C. Supreme Court. Parker, who is from Charlotte, has served ably as an N.C. judge for more than three decades, and there’s no indication that her abilities have diminished in recent years. Yet she is being forced to step down by an N.C. law that makes judges leave the bench by the last day of the month in which they turn 72.

Same for Bill Constangy, who is retiring Aug. 31 after serving as a Mecklenburg judge for a quarter-century. Constangy, who was most recently elected to a Superior Court seat in 2010, plans to work as an emergency judge and do some arbitration and mediation.

“I’m not ready to retire,” he told the Observer last week.

He shouldn’t have to. North Carolina’s mandatory retirement age for judges is an antiquated rule that smacks of ageism. It’s a law that was written more than four decades ago, when Americans had different expectations of what life would be like – and how long it might last – after age 70.

In 1971, when the rule went on the books in North Carolina, life expectancy for Americans was around 70 years of age. Now, people born in August 1942, as both Parker and Constangy were, have a life expectancy of 86 to 87 years, according the U.S. Social Security Administration.

But it doesn’t necessarily matter how long someone is expected to live. It matters how long someone can capably do a job, and thanks to healthy lifestyles and medical advances, more Americans are working past 70 without giving much thought to slowing down.

When those workers do eventually slow, they have bosses to decide what’s next. In North Carolina, the judges’ bosses are the citizens who cast ballots each year in judicial elections. Those voters, not an arbitrary number, should decide when a judge needs replacing.

Thirty-three states require the compulsory retirement of judges, with most setting an age limit between 70 and 75. Some of those laws were written to avoid lifetime tenure in states where judges don’t face reelection challenges. Some were written to ensure that the courts have a vigorous judiciary. (If North Carolina must have an age limit, we suggest a look at Vermont, which doesn’t force the gold watch on its judges until they hit 90. Now that’s some long-lasting vigor.)

The best approach: Lose the age limit. Federal judges don’t have one. Neither does any branch of government. Mandatory retirement is unnecessary and discriminatory. It’s also costly – North Carolina has to pay retirement benefits to a perfectly good judge, then pay another judge to take his or her place.

The bigger cost, however, is the experience and wisdom that leave the bench when judges are forced to retire. Let judges – and the people who elect them – determine when it’s time to go.

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