On being 80

I’ve recently passed my 80th birthday. I think about this passage often, crossing my fingers, thanking the Lord, and realizing how lucky I am to be working at what I enjoy, active in sports, engaged in an active professional and social life, and aware this condition isn’t guaranteed nor common.

I think about it as I read the debates about whether Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire so President Obama could appoint a young justice to replace her, and assure a more progressive wing of the court. That debate hinges on false arguments — she has been seriously ill, the justices sit too long anyway, the Founding Fathers lived to a much younger age so they didn’t envision 80-year-olds with the power of Supreme Court when they assured lifetime appointments to justices. Those current arguments are false and often hinge on whether one likes the justices’ positions (they should stay) or don’t like them (they are too old and should retire). 

ADVERTISEMENT
I think the correct consideration should focus on the justices’ ability to do the job. I endorse the Satchel Paige remark: “How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?” I know 80-year-olds who are ill, losing skills and ought to retire, if they haven’t. I also know some who are at the top of their game. Age has to do with luck, genes, lifestyles, not numbers.

Ginsburg is at the top of her game, and ought to keep playing while she remains so. The rest one can’t know, such as who the next president will be, and appointments are open to unknowable factors. But Ginsburg’s skills are not. She should carry on, and we should applaud her doing so; youth doesn’t guarantee wisdom! 

The real problem is when a justice has lost the capacity to handle that important job, and doesn’t voluntarily resign. There needs to be a procedure for dealing with that problem. But that is another subject for another time.

There is a famous anecdote (charming, even if apocryphal) about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was walking arm in arm on the way to work on the court with Justice Louis Brandeis; Holmes was 90 and Brandeis 80. A beautiful young woman walked by and Holmes commented to Brandeis: “Ah, Louis, to be 80 again.

Indeed!

More in News

Ginsburg due back at work on Monday

Read more »