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‘Retirement’ Missing From Vocabulary of NY Judges

Some are old enough to recall pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh’s tickertape parade. Others can share vivid memories of World War II or the Great Depression.

But unlike most people their age, New York City’s federal judges prefer to strike one topic from the record: retirement.

“We don’t talk about when anybody’s going to quit or retire,’’ says John F. Keenan, an 82-year-old Manhattan judge. “Some of the best judges we ever had … they worked right up until they died.’’

The federal judicial system has become a case study in how the country will cope with a graying America, where each economic crisis forces more people to work beyond 65.

Recent interviews with several lifetime tenured judges and experts suggest people often can thrive when challenged to work into their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Nearly all the judges have one thing in common: no plans to drop the gavel on their careers. The trend caused the government in December to adjust its projection for planning purposes that federal judges retire by age 85. For New York, the expectation is now that only half will retire by then.

“Everybody kind of goes on the assumption that you’re going to crap out. Maybe you don’t have to,’’ says Robert Sweet, another Manhattan judge.

Sweet is preparing for his 90th birthday. He skis two to three days a week when he’s at his Idaho getaway. He also ice skates and plays tennis.

“The arbitrary idea of 65 now is insane, in terms of capacity,’’ said Sweet, who’s had knee replacement and wears a hearing aid. “There are now increasing numbers of ways when things begin to poop out, there are curative things that make things better.’’

The federal courts from coast to coast are places where age is valued like nowhere else. Thanks to the founding fathers, the Constitution guarantees judges jobs for life with full pay — whether they work or not. Many state judges must retire at age 70.

“It’s extraordinary,’’ Sweet said. “Just the idea you can keep going if you wish until A, you croak, or B, you or somebody else comes to the realization that you can’t go on.’’

He added: “Don’t you think societally, it’s important to have the seniors not sitting on the porch, rocking and thinking about how things used to be? But thinking about tomorrow, how things are and how they’re going to be?’’

Experts on the aging workforce agree.

“There’s no question that people who keep on working are happier and healthier,’’ said George Valliant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Harvard “Grant Study of Adult Development.’’

Valliant calls mandatory retirement in many professions “really dumb,’’ given the steady rise in mortality rates. The judges’ performance is proof that wisdom and the ability to see irony and paradoxes frequently improves with age, he said.

“They’ve got what’s called compensatory or reserve intelligence,’’ he said.

With aging, “You sometimes lose names,’’ said 90-year-old Jack Weinstein. “You don’t lose the capacity for decision making and the capacity for analysis.’’

Older judges benefit from having nothing to prove, added Weinstein, a World War II veteran appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the bench in Brooklyn more than four decades ago.

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