Age limits; let voters decide

Rick Morain

It’s Labor Day Week; maybe a time to take a break from the regular routine and do a little dreaming. No requirement for actual success of any given suggestion – just a chance to chew over a few ideas.

For instance, how about the idea of age limits for federal officeholders?

I oppose age limits for officials who are elected. The Constitution sets minimum ages for members of Congress---25 for Representatives, 30 for Senators---and a minimum age of 35 for Presidents. But it establishes no maximum ages for those officials. 

If we truly believe in democracy, it should be up to the voting electorate whether an elderly candidate be elected or not. In the Way Back, not many people had an opportunity actually to observe, or even recognize, someone running for federal office, given the rudimentary status of communication and transportation. 

But today it’s impossible to avoid the 24-hour TV news cycle, especially in a congressional candidate’s home state. Campaigns go on for months, even years. That lengthy stretch gives voters every opportunity---often too many opportunities---to form opinions about candidates. 

If people decide a candidate is too old to carry out the duties of the office, they can vote against him or her. It’s as simple as that. Human beings, including election hopefuls, reach the stage of incompetence at difference ages. It should be up to the voters, not an arbitrary age maximum law, to decide whether a candidate should represent them or not.


Age limits for appointed federal judges, I think, are a different story. Article III of the Constitution states: “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, . . .” No definition is given for what that means. It’s up to the individual judge to decide when, if ever, to retire. That can be a problem.

It’s no secret that as we age, many of us lose cognitive sharpness. It’s not a political thing. It’s rather declining ability to reason through complicated lines of  thought. Many of my 80-year-old-plus colleagues, friends and relatives know what I’m talking about. And in the case of judges, that thinking process was the sole purpose for which they were appointed in the first place.

I don’t know what a proper mandatory retirement age is for a judge. In Iowa, and many other states, the requirement is in the low 70s, the point at which full-time duty for a judge ends. I doubt that Iowa’s legal system suffers from its mandatory judicial age requirement.

It would no doubt take a constitutional amendment to establish a mandatory retirement age for federal judges. Unlikely possibility---until some federal judge loses the ability to reason but refuses to retire. That event may open the discussion.

I’m not done cogitating (my dad’s word) on such ideas. Watch this space, when you don’t have something better to do.

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