Uncle Len: Loving Being a Judge at 94

After a Pennsylvania ballot initiative passes, a reminder of the vacancy crisis in courts

[Yesterday, Pennsylvania voters narrowly ratified a state constitutional amendment to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges there to 75 from 70, so Next Avenue is republishing this related article from earlier this year.]

Two recent events caused me to think about my Uncle Len, who remains a federal judge at the age of 94.

First, as president of Encore.org, I participated last week in our important Encore2016 conference to celebrate and connect the “encore movement” — the growing tide of older Americans using their experience to improve the world. Second, Justice Scalia’s recent passing reminded me about the acute vacancy crisis in our federal courts.

Let me explain.

Opting for ‘Senior Status’

My husband’s uncle, Leonard Garth, left a lucrative private practice in 1969 to accept an appointment to the Federal District Court by President Nixon. Three years later, Judge Garth was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where he serves today. Even though he was entitled to retire with a full pension at 65 (in 1986), he elected to take the option of “senior status” and continue with a slightly reduced caseload for the next 28 years.

As enormous numbers of boomers yen for purpose-driven work in their later life, too many of them are all dressed up with no place to go.

Recently, he gave up sitting on panels but carries on hearing motions. And even after moving into a retirement home, he has continued to commute — scooting in his motorized cart down the hall from his apartment to the modest chambers the federal government had set up to allow him to keep working.

Why did Judge Garth choose to continue serving even though he made no extra salary or pension by doing so? Partly because he truly loved the law and took pride in his work, laboring over each opinion. But even more important, he stayed because he was sorely needed.

The Judicial Vacancy Crisis

There is a serious dearth in nominations and appointments for the entire federal judiciary, especially at the appellate level. The resulting vacancies threaten to cripple the integrity of the judicial system, bringing to life the truism “justice delayed is justice denied.” The fine men and women who work while on senior status help fill this gap.

Sadly, the enlightened approach of the federal judiciary system — recognizing the inherent “win/win” of using senior, seasoned talent for the benefit of society — is a rare exception to the rule in this country. As enormous numbers of boomers yen for purpose-driven work in their later life, too many of them are all dressed up with no place to go. Ageism, outdated notions of the “right” retirement age and shibboleths about older adults’ aptitude and attitude are just some of the barriers they face.

But there is hope.

Innovations in Later Life Purpose-Driven Work

A growing community of activists, members of the media, academics, social entrepreneurs and leaders from NGOs and business who convened at Encore2016 are beginning to turn the ship in the right direction.

There are exciting, new innovations to use seasoned talent across the country, such as Fremont, Calif.’s Community Ambassador Program for Seniors (CAPS) that trains older adults to provide a range of services and advice to older adults of similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  Another one: Hewlett Packard’s longstanding support for its retirees’ paid fellowships in nonprofits.

This trend is encouraging, and the tide of opportunity and interest is growing.

But there is still much work to be done.

An Encore.org survey found that 4.5 million Americans have encore careers (purpose-oriented later life work) and another 21 million want them. Putting those 21 million people to work addressing challenges such as at-risk kids, climate change and financial exclusion raises breathtaking possibilities — especially given the wisdom of their collective experience.

It starts and finishes by recognizing the value of that experience. Judge Garth’s encore is having enormous impact and the federal judiciary is smart to have figured out the way to tap the hundreds of other judges with much still left to give. Let’s take a page from this program and do a better job, through innovations, policies and programs to use or deploy encore talent throughout the land.

Let’s put an encore army of problem solvers, like Uncle Len, to work.

Ann MacDougall
By Ann MacDougall
Ann MacDougall is the former president of Encore.org

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