Should the President, Senators, and Supreme Court Justices Have an Upper Age Limit?

Some friends and I were discussing on Facebook whether the presidency should be subject to a maximum age limit, as well as a minimum age limit. Many of the senators being suggested as possible candidates for 2020 are in their 70s now.

The Brooks Museum in Memphis had a display of presidential images a few years ago. Paintings, sculpture, death masks, photographs — every president looked 10-15 years older instead of 4-8. That position is wearying on the soul and the body. Electing someone who is qualified, but may not survive the strain of office, is unwise.

I couldn’t help thinking of what Emperor Ezar Vobarra said in Lois McMaster Bujold‘s SHARDS OF HONOR, when he was defining what would be required of an imperial regent for his grandson.

“What the Regency requires is a man of impeccable rank, no more than middle-aged, with a strong military background. He should be popular with his officers and men, well-known to the public, and above all respected by the General Staff. Ruthless enough to hold near-absolute power in this madhouse for sixteen years, and honest enough to hand over that power at the end of those sixteen years to a boy who will no doubt be an idiot — I was, at that age, and as I recall, so were you — and, oh, yes, happily married. Reduces the temptation of becoming bedroom Emperor through the Princess.”

The USA is not the planet Barrayar. Our needs, laws, and customs are different. However, these requirements aren’t too far off from what we should consider. The president should be old enough to be experienced, but young enough to not only survive the job but live through the conditions s/he creates. A certain degree of ruthlessness is required to make the hard decisions. Some experience with the military is helpful; the commander-in-chief should know something of the military life, when s/he asks men and women to fight and die. A career military leader may not be the best, simply because military methods are very different from civilian administration.  Many presidents served when their country needed them,  but did not spend their entire life in the military:  James Monroe in the American Revolution, Abraham Lincoln in the Blackhawk War (he never saw combat), Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, Jimmy Carter in Korea.  Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. Bush were all in the military or in the reserves during WWII.


Honesty, integrity, and a belief in the American Constitution are necessities. The president must be willing and able to step down after 4-8 years, not try to stay in power for decades like some African or Central American tinpot dictator. Happily married also helps; although no American politician will try to win the White House by marrying a predecessor’s widow(er), marriage — at least a good one — teaches compromise, partnership, and other skills valuable to a public servant.

Perhaps that’s the most important job requirement of all. The president must remember although s/he is the most powerful person in the world, s/he is a servant as well as a leader. The American president is a public servant.

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”   Theodore Roosevelt

Dianne Feinstein is 84. Orrin Hatch (currently fourth in line to the presidency) is 83. Maxine Waters is 79. Barbara Boxer is 77. Bernie Sanders is 76. Joe Biden is 75. Robert Reich is 71. Hillary Clinton and Olympia Snowe are 70. Susan Collins, John Kasich, John Hickenlooper, and Bob Corker are 65. Gary Johnson is 64.

Think how old they will be in 2024. It’s time to consider some younger possibilities.

Bill Haslam is 59. Jon Huntsman is 57. Laura Ebke is 55. Martin O’Malley, Keith Ellison, and Jeff Flake are 54. Kamala Harris is 53. Marco Rubio is 46. Nikki Haley is 45. Evan McMillian is 41. Joe Kennedy is 37.

My bookmate Rebecca McFarland Kyle said the presidency  “is a job for a mature person but not necessarily an aged one.”  Another bookmate, Voss Foster, countered “I don’t agree with a maximum age limit, as I feel it’s shutting out some good candidates that we may not even know about. I do think lowering the minimum age to 30 would alleviate some of this.”

My clan-cousin, Laurie MacDonald (she’s from the branch of the family that capitalizes the D) pointed out: “The problem is that some people are fully competent and physically fit to perform the duties of President of the United States at the age of 70 and beyond, while others are neither competent or physically fit at a much younger age… I keep thinking there should be some sort of test for mental competence in order to be president, but I don’t know how this situation should be handled. Who would administer the tests? If the person is declared mentally unfit, the person would immediately scream prejudice.”

The late Douglas Adams may have said it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.  To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.  To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.  To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

This rationale was the theme of one of the stories in MORE ALTERNATIVE TRUTHS.


My friends and I also discussed the possibility of term limits for legislators, and/or mandatory retirement age for legislators and Supreme Court justices.  It was brought up that legislators, administrators, and judges should have to live long enough to deal with the consequences of their actions.

Our current Supreme Court justices range in age from 50 (Neil Gorsuch) to 84 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).  Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, although they may voluntarily retire or resign.  Because they were not awarded pensions until 1869, many justices stayed longer than they may have wished, or longer than they were fit to, for financial reasons.  As Jonathan Turley pointed out, “If a justice is significantly impaired, there is no way to remove him from the bench.  The Constitution provides for involuntarily removal of justices only by a process of impeachment. It requires a showing of serious wrongdoing but has nothing to do with mental competence. And yet since its founding, the court has struggled with incompetent, addicted and even insane justices.”  Rather than a life term, should justices be appointed for a decade, and then have the president have the option of re-appointing them or not?  Should justices be required to step down at 70, or 75, or 80?  The Notorious RBG is still mentally fit at 84.  Other justices (John Rutledge, Robert Grier, etc.) were unfit much younger.

Term limits for Congress have been discussed and debated for years.  On the one hand, term limits prevent the growth of a permanent legislator class who’ve lost touch with the ordinary lives of their constituents.  They also help the nation avoid unfit or senile legislators. [Strom Thurmond, who spent 48 years in the senate, was 100 years old when he finally retired. Was he able to represent his state as well in 2003 as he did in 1956?]  As George Will pointed out, senator and senile share the same root word, and the current senate is very different from what the Founding Fathers had envisioned.  On the other hand,  term limits deprive the people of experienced legislators who understand the system.  Washington, DC, as our current president has proven, is a confusing labyrinth to newcomers.  If term limits are enacted, the entire congressional system of power based on seniority  will need to be redesigned.

Bernie Sanders and Maxine Waters are sharp-witted, despite their age.  Most voters consider their age the reason for their wisdom and experience.  Other senators and congressional representatives far younger than them (Tom Cotton, for example, or Ted Cruz, or Todd Akin) have said and done things to make many voters doubt their qualifications. Kevin Drum suggested moderate term limits.

I’m just an ex-teacher and a freelance copy editor.  I don’t claim to have all the answers.  But anyone who reads a newspaper can see that our government needs a little help; maintaining the status quo will be bad for our children and grandchildren.  What can we do to improve our nation, to help it be the best country in the world, “with liberty and justice for all”?  I’m interested in your opinions.

Disclaimer:  Rebecca McFarland Kyle and Voss Foster are bookmates of mine; we have stories in the same anthologies.  Laurie MacDonald has purchased an autographed copy of ALTERNATIVE TRUTHS.

Alt truths cover

Happy Bill of Rights Day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s