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“Supreme Change” is Needed

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Charles S. Wilcox
October 22, 2020

It’s been 245 years since John Adams eloquently crafted his Thoughts on Government, outlining the judicial power vested in the Supreme Court. Adams noted the court would need, “Men of experience on the laws, of exemplary morals, invincible patience, unruffled calmness and indefatigable application… (and should be)… subservient to none,” and appointed for life. At that time, the mean life expectancy in America was 38 years of age. While the court has eventually allowed for female justices, little else has changed. Only a Constitutional Amendment will allow us to have a future Supreme Court more assuredly cognitively intact for the challenges ahead.

Amongst the seven largest democracies in the world, America is the only democracy with no upper age limit and no term limit for our Supreme Court Justices. Indonesia has a 2.5-year term limit and Mexico has a 15-year term limit; the other large democracies all have upper age limits: 75 years of age in Brazil, 70 years in the Philippines ( + Australia ), 65 years in India and 60 years of age in Japan. Paradoxically, when one considers the overall “culture(s)” and respect-for-the-elderly in both India and Japan, their upper age limits for their supreme court justice equivalents is more than compelling. Clearly, these democracies have safeguarded their judicial systems from the foreseeable and inherent cognitive decline that accompanies the aging process. Why don’t we?

As a concerned American, I have written to all 100 U.S. Senators asking for their leadership in addressing a long overdue supreme change to the United States Supreme Court! 

On the heels of 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing, amidst protests, demonstrations and riots accompanying pleas for social and criminal justice changes, we inexplicably and indefensibly cling to a Supreme Court framework wherein all nine Justices are allowed to serve indefinitely, “Appointed for life.”

Many of us in the scientific community continue to question, why? While this made sense in 1775, when dramatically shorter lifespans were the norm, in 2020 and beyond, this is dangerously irresponsible and will foreseeably lead to otherwise avoidable catastrophic consequences! For this to prevail and persist during a time when so much attention and focus is being placed on our judicial systems, we unquestionably have a systemic inherent age-associated problem (e.g., vulnerability) at the very top. Our Supreme Court needs supreme change.  

Having been involved for more than 40 years in cognitive clinical research, I can guarantee that none of our Supreme Court Justices is immune from cognitive decline! Indeed, the facts are alarming with respect to the incidence and prevalence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), prodromal Alzheimer’s disease and early-mild Alzheimer’s disease when one reaches their late-70s and early-80s: it’s an irrefutable fact. Moreover, it’s a fact that cannot and should not continue to be ignored when it comes to justice being properly served in our highest court! 

While there are not-so-subtle allegations about the cognitive status of both 2020 major political parties’ Presidential candidates, whether it’s the most liberal or most conservative United States Supreme Court Justice, neither she nor he, nor we, can be assured that our justices escape the insidious wrath of cognitive decline. Yet, unlike all other large democracies, we continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the harsh reality of this important age-related inherent phenomenon/problem! Why?

More than 30 years ago my colleague and friend Louis A. Gottschalk, M.D., et al., published, “Presidential Candidates and Cognitive Impairment Measured from Behavior in Campaign Debates,” in the Public Administration Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, noting that one presidential candidate demonstrated significantly more cognitive impairment during the debates. Dr. Gottschalk’s screening method assessed nonspecific cerebral dysfunction, secondary to neuropharmacological, neurochemical and/or other biological factors. He raised the issue that while top political officials usually routinely have general medical examinations, the notion that these same officials could submit to periodic neuropsychiatric evaluations was logistically easily doable, yet probably politically impossible. In 2020, objective cognitive testing is even more “doable” and more unlikely than ever for Presidential candidates, as well as Supreme Court Justices. At least for our Supreme Court, we can learn from other democracies, amend our Constitution and ameliorate the, “Appointed for life,” vulnerability. This would not be age discrimination; it would be age-associated enlightenment.

We need our leaders, especially our Senators and Congressmen, to reach across the political aisle and effectively address this serious reality without ambivalence, partisanship or delay. At a time when we’re seeing nightly news about “judicial change” and how “we’re all in this together,” I whole-heartedly believe we deserve and indeed we need a fully cognitively intact United States Supreme Court with an explicit upper age limit! This need truly transcends today’s often divisive and partisan politics. 

Finally, perhaps having our elected officials reach across the aisle to successfully bring about significant bipartisan legislation to implement this type of supreme change for our Supreme Court could and would open the door for additional needed bipartisan progress. If not you [elected officials], then who? If not now, then when?


Author: Charles S. Wilcox, Ph.D., M.P.A., M.B.A. is CEO at Praxis Research Consulting. For more than 40 years he was on the leading edge of clinical research and matters of brain health, at Pharmacology Research Institute where he was Executive Director. His research has been published in numerous scientific journals and presented at more than 100 scientific conferences all around the world. Currently serving on both public and private Boards of Directors, including Alzheimer’s Association [Orange County], he may be contacted via [email protected]

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