Reflecting on Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians

By Gali Katznelson

This month, the Petrie-Flom Center collaborated with the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior  to host a panel entitled Dementia and Democracy: America’s Aging Judges and Politicians.” The panelists, Bruce Price, MD, Francis X. Shen, JD, PhD, and Rebecca Brendel, JD, MD, elucidated the problems, as well as potential solutions, to the challenges of America’s judiciary and elected politicians getting older. Reconciling dementia with democracy is a pressing matter. As Dr. Price explained, age is the single largest risk factor for dementia, a risk that doubles every five years after the age of 65, and America is a country with five of the nine Supreme Court Justices over the age of 67, a 71-year-old president, a 75-year-old Senate Majority Leader, and a 77-year-old House Minority Leader.

In his talk “Dementia in Judges and Elected Officials: Challenges and Solutions,” Dr. Shen defined the complex problem. While most other jobs are not retaining workers into old age, many judges and elected officials continue to serve well into their 80s. To complicate matters further, without widespread regulations or metrics to identify how dementia impedes one’s work, the media assumes the position of speculating the cognitive statuses and fates of judges and elected officials. Dr. Shen’s key point was, “Surely we can do better than speculation.”

Dr. Shen proposed several solutions to address dementia in elected officials and judges. Currently, we leave the open market and colleagues to regulate individuals, which remains a valid approach as we consider other options. Another default position is to diagnose based on publicly available data, a solution that introduces the specific ethical concerns that Dr. Brendel addressed in her talk (discussed below). There are, however, novel solutions. We could consider requiring cognitive testing and disclosure (which could be overseen by an internal review board), or we could simply impose an age limit for service. For judges, if such an age limit were imposed, we could create a rebuttable presumption in which a judge can continue to serve by completing an evaluation. Alternatively, perhaps judges can be limited to adjudicating specific cases based on their cognitive status.

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