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In the past few months, I’ve conducted public television interviews with two former chief justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Deborah Poritz and James Zazzali. Both are articulate, dynamic, and engaging. Yet the only reason I was able to interview them was that both had recently retired from the court and were now free to talk on the record.
Their retirement was not their choice; it was the law. New Jersey Supreme Court Judges must retire at age 70. A CEO of a top New Jersey insurance company recently told me that he was retiring reluctantly because he had reached 65, and company policy was putting him out to pasture. You must be 30 to run for the U.S. Senate and 35 to be president. When I was 25 and running for the state Legislature, many voters would ask, “Do you think you are old enough to be a state representative?” (At 27, I became the youngest member of the Jersey Legislature to lose his seat.)
Like it or not, age is an issue. U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg is 84. If he wins the Democratic primary this month and is reelected this fall, he will turn 90 by the end of his six-year term. Ninety? That is 21 years older than the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices and 26 years older than the mandatory retirement age for most corporate executives.
Lautenberg has the backing of Governor Jon Corzine and the New Jersey congressional delegation (except for Congressman Rob Andrews, 51, who is challenging Lautenberg in the primary). Most of the senator’s supporters resent anyone bringing up Lautenberg’s age. Some say it smacks of discrimination. Yet it was none other than candidate Lautenberg who, in 1982, claimed that his opponent for the U.S. Senate, Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick, was too old for the job. Fenwick was 72.
I’m not convinced that Lautenberg is too old to serve in the Senate for another six years, but ask yourself: Would you give a six-year contract to somebody 84 years old? It’s a legitimate question, even though Lautenberg is in great shape for a guy in his mid-80s, or, heck, even his mid-70s. It’s a rare individual whose faculties don’t decline as they approach age 90. Voters will have to decide if Lautenberg is such a person.
How long is too long? Perhaps the law is wise to force judges to retire at 70. Think of how much rides on their powers of reasoning and their ability to maintain unflagging concentration during many hours of grueling testimony. Lautenberg and his supporters should not resent anyone asking whether he still has what it takes. It’s all ultimately a guessing game, but voters need to reach a reasonable conclusion as to his odds of staying fit six more years.
Lautenberg played the age card in 1982, but he doesn’t seem to remember that now. It’s not because of his ripe age, but rather because he just doesn’t want to retire. I don’t blame him. You don’t want to stop doing what you love, especially if voters keep sending you back.
I can see both sides, but I don’t like forcing talented, skilled, energetic people to walk away from what they do best. In politics, let the voters judge who’s fit to keep on keeping on.
Steve Adubato, PhD., is an Emmy Award-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and a media analyst and columnist for MSNBC.com. He provides commentary on talk radio station 770-WABC. He is the author of the book "Make the Connection", as well as the soon-to-be published book "What Were They Thinking?", which examines highly publicized and often controversial public relations and media mishaps. For more information, log on to www.stand-deliver.com