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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.

"You don't care really what people think of you," he said. "You're not going anyplace. You're doing it for the joy. And as a public service."

When the Senate confirmed Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum in 1986, there were only two other female district judges in the Manhattan courthouse.

Back then, Cedarbaum was afraid to take a vacation. Now at 82, she's among a dozen women on the bench — and, like Weinstein, has nothing to prove.

"Experience really does matter," she said.

Under the federal system, judges whose years of service and age add up to 80 can take "senior status." That means they can choose a reduced caseload and keep a chambers and staff of four, including up to three law clerks — often until death.

Wesley Brown, a Wichita, Kan., federal judge, worked regularly until he died last month at age 104. Appointed to the bench in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, Brown was six years older than the next oldest sitting federal judge.

A week ago, 77-year-old Roger J. Miner, a federal appellate judge in Manhattan, died of heart failure. His wife Jacqueline said an unfinished opinion remained on his desk in their Hudson, N.Y., home.

Milton Pollack, another judge appointed by President Johnson in 1967, remained hard at work before he died in August 2004 at age 97. Just a year earlier, he tossed out numerous lawsuits that tried to blame Merrill Lynch & Co. for a late '90s stock bubble, saying the plaintiffs were "high-risk speculators."

Judge Barbara S. Jones, a relative youngster at 64, recalled Pollack telling her after she became a judge in 1995 never to quit so she'd keep her mind active.

"It would have been unthinkable to him to stop working," she said.

Of the 40 trial-level judges — the most anywhere — in the Manhattan courthouse, about half are working as senior judges. And nearly half of them are over age 80, handling some of the biggest mob, white-collar and terrorism cases.

Still, some judges step down. Michael Mukasey went into private practice and later became attorney general under President George W. Bush. And Richard Holwell, appointed to the bench in 2003, resigned just weeks ago to start a law firm, where he'll likely make millions rather than the $174,000 annual salary for judges.

"When Judge Holwell stepped down, you could have picked everybody around here off the floor," said Chief Judge Loretta Preska, who is 63. "It's quite unusual."

The judges who stay on credit stimulating jobs for their longevity. Exercise helps too.

The stout, 6-foot-2 Weinstein starts his day with a gym workout that would challenge most people half his age.

"I read the New York Times on the bike — 30 minutes," he said when asked to detail his routine. "Rowing machine — 10 minutes. Elliptical machine — 10 minutes. Jogging machine — 10 minutes. Then the stomach and the other things. And I have a trainer. All told, between an hour and half and two hours."

Then he heads straight to work in his 14th floor chambers with sweeping views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

"I can't wait to get in," he said. "It's fascinating work and you hope at the end of the day that you've done less harm than good. ... Why would anyone want to play golf when I can come in and do this?"

Stephen Spindler, professor of biochemistry at the University of California-Riverside, said studies show that exercise helps people maintain cognitive abilities. But he said the judges were likely a unique subset of the population.

"These are those rare people who feel good already. One of the reasons they can exercise and be very active and are mentally astute is because they are healthy," he said.

Keenan believes the job gives the mind a workout.

"As long as you keep active, it helps you mentally," Keenan said. "It's like exercise in a sense. If you don't exercise, your muscles atrophy. I think that if you don't exercise your mind, it's the same way."

Weinstein says he draws strength from a marriage that's spanned 66 years. Heredity might be working in his favor as well. His great-grandfather, a blacksmith in Russia, lived to 103.

"He died when he was shoeing a horse," he said with a sly smile. "Whether he was kicked in the head or dropped dead, I don't know."

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