By Kate Harper
Most of us, thankfully, will never see the inside of a courtroom, but if we are there, it's not usually our choice. A teenaged child or grandchild's stupid action one hot Saturday night, a husband who moves out and then serves divorce papers, a car accident on a wet, slippery night - those are the things that get us a courtroom subpoena.
Once we hire a lawyer we trust, we dress carefully, but not too flashy, pretend we are being cross-examined, and practice our answers over and over. Only then do we start to worry about the judge. What will he - or she - be like? Will the judge understand that teenagers do stupid things? Will the judge care how hard it is to keep a marriage together? Will the judge know how much you love your children and how you cannot bear to be parted from them? Will the judge listen to your side of the story?
In such moments we hope for a judge as wise and as patient as Solomon. But wisdom and patience come with experience and, in Pennsylvania, we force all judges to retire at age 70, as a result of a mandatory retirement age written into the state constitution in 1968, when the average life expectancy was barely beyond that. (It's much longer now). Scientific evidence suggests this mandatory retirement age isn't a good idea.
As recently reported in Nautilus, a science magazine, "While aging diminishes activity in certain brain regions, there's tantalizing evidence that this may be compensated by changes in brain regions associated with supportive and social behavior. This shift in brain activity may foster wisdom in some people, a way of being that moves one away from self-centeredness toward emotional equanimity and social consciousness. We may even be able to work toward wisdom in old age."
"Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, not just their own, and they show tolerance as a result," according to a New York Times article on "The Science of Older and Wiser."
"Research has shown that as we age, not all of our cognitive abilities are on a steady downward path," says social worker F. Diane Barth, "In fact, according to a study by Laura Carstensen and Joseph Mikels at Stanford University, cognitive abilities tied to emotion actually improve with age."
Pennsylvania voters have a chance to weigh in on this issue at the November election. A question seeking to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75 is on the ballot.
Of course, age alone is no guarantee of wisdom, but it is a shame to lose the vast experience, legal and human, that judges approaching the current mandatory retirement age of 70 have by forcing every single one to leave at age 70. For some of them, the accumulation of time spent not just analyzing the law and facts, but also living a long life that includes children, grandchildren, unhappy spouses and siblings, as well as births, deaths, and tragic accidents, and silly neighbors, leads to wisdom.
Of course, experienced trial lawyers - who face no mandatory retirement age from the practice of law - are quick to point to this judge or that one as so "old and cranky" he should have retired years ago. But even these lawyers, when pressed, can name a wise and good judge or two who was forced out too early and for whom any retirement age would have been too soon.
This November, voters have several choices to make, but don't forget to vote on the referendum question raising the judges' mandatory retirement age to 75.
State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) represents the 61st District. firstname.lastname@example.org