Should Judges Be Tested for Alzheimer's?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 06, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judge Valerie Turner, on temporary disability, was glad to turn over her duties to another judge.

Rhonda Crawford was a great replacement; she had served well in the courtroom. Problem was, Turner apparently forgot that Crawford was her law clerk.

Turner, 60, was forced to retire because she has Alzheimer's. It's a problem for an aging judiciary, and some believe it's time to test judges for mental decline.

Judicial Dementia

Judicial dementia is not a diagnosis; it's a problem. And when federal judges have lifetime appointments and Alzheimer's is on the rise, the solution may be testing them for mental decline.

Professor Francis Shen, of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, said federal judges tend to stay on the job well past typical retirement ages. Some cognitive decline with age is normal, but the risk of dementia skyrockets as people get older.

Shen recently presented the issue at a Harvard Law School forum, and suggested that judges could be tested when they reach a certain age. Dr. Bruce Price, a leading neurologist, added data on the effects of aging on the brain.

"[N]ormal aging does involve some cognitive decline -- mainly in 'fluid intelligence' qualities such as processing speed and working memory -- and near lifespan's end, 'mild cognitive impairment' and outright dementia dominate," Carey Goldberg reported for CommonHealth.

Different Functions

Some professions, such as commercial airplane pilots, mandate retirement at a certain age. Professional athletes also lose their jobs as they lose their skills.

Mandatory retirement age might not be the solution for declining judges. Harvard's Dr. Rebecca Weintraub Brendel said while some mental abilities decline with age, others may be critically important.

"So if you do have mandatory retirement ages in professions that are highly dependent on experience you also lose the perspective of those who have seen a lot and can contribute, even though how they contribute might be different," she said.

Studies show that the aging brain may actually be wiser. In Turner's case, maybe she was on to something when she let her law clerk handle some traffic cases -- the law clerk later won a judicial election. She was disqualified, however, for false impersonation.

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