Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Congress and the Courts: 80 and Out?

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Any serious student of California politics knows the story of the late Ralph Dills, the man with the longest tenure in the State Legislature (6 terms in the Assembly; 8 in the Senate).

Ralph Dills

He’s remembered for having had the courage to vote against the internment of Japanese-Americans in Word War II, not to mention playing a pretty mean sax (pictured left). He’s also remembered for being the poster boy for term limits — a candidate who once ran under the slogan “too old to quit”.

By the 1990s, and well into his late-80s in his final years in office, Dills was showing early signs of failing health and memory loss — what would become a sad and tragic retirement.

I thought of the late Senator Dills the other way while watching the coverage of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Steven’s planned retirement.  Not that Stevens is anywhere near the same condition, mentally or physically, as was Dills. But, given that Justice Stevens celebrates his 90th birthday a few days from now (April 20), maybe it’s time to revisit the issue of age limits and public service.

Here’s a thought: why not impose an age limit of 80 on federal judges and members of Congress seeking election or re-election?

It’s not a new concept. During his second term, Franklin Roosevelt tried to pull off the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, aka the “court-packing” plan that would have added an extra Supreme Court justice for each justice that reached the age of 70-1/2 years. But that was a thinly veiled attempt to strike back at a High Court that had struck down portions of the New Deal.

As for Congress, the idea of an age limit has been floated before — usually in tandem with term limits. But good luck getting members to vote on anything that limits their powers.

Still, it’s a fun idea to ponder.

"Early" retirements would change this picture

Consider how such a rule would play out with current eight men and women in black.

Justice Ginsburg would step down in 2013, followed in 2016 by Justices Kennedy and Scalia (imagine the dust-up of President Obama, in his final year in office, slugging it out with Senate Republicans over a replacement for Kennedy’s swing vote and Scalia’s arch-conservative vote).

Two years later, in 2018, it would be Justice Breyer’s turn to retire.  Then things calm down — for another decade, that is — until another round of mandatory retirements: Justice Thomas in 2028, Justice Alito in 2030, Justice Sotomayor in 2034 and, finally, Chief Justice Roberts in 2035.

As for Congress and California, it would mean that Sen. Dianne Feinstein could run again in 2012, when she’s 79.  Sen. Barbara Boxer, should she win this year, could run one last time in 2016, as she turns 80 in 2020. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also would have to step down in 2020, the year of her 80th birthday, preceded the year before by the all-powerful Rep. Henry Waxman.

But for at least one state — West Virginia — mandatory congressional retirement would help settle a potentially uncomfortable situation in 2012, when Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd may seek a record 10th term. Byrd’s never lost an election, and he’s a West Virginia institution. But he’s also in poor health — and like the late Strom Thurmond, another campaign will spark talk about whether the favorite son could best serve his constituents by choosing not to serve.

Another state facing this scenario: New Jersey. Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who would face reelection in 2014 at the age of 90, currently is being for treated for curable stomach cancer.

The point of this isn’t to associate ascending age with declining health. For example, in December 2006, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson was nearly killed by a cerebral hemorrhage that kept him off the Senate floor for nearly an entire year. Johnson was only two weeks shy of his 60th birthday at the time of his illness.

Rather, the goal should be how Washington can regain the public’s confidence in these cynical times. And perhaps that means bidding goodbye to some familiar faces, and a more frequent wardrobe change on the High Court.

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Written by Bill Whalen

April 12, 2010 at 10:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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