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Day 12 - weird cases - old but not out

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  • 1. WEIRD CASESWhen Miguel Aragon-Concha was recently sentenced to 70-months imprisonment for being apersistent illegal immigrant in the United States, he might have been worried about whetherhis sentencer, Judge Wesley E Brown, was up to the job.Judge Brown, you see, is 103 and sometimes uses a mask attached to an oxygen-tank underthe bench to revive himself.By all accounts, though, Judge Brown, is as sharp and alert as he was 20 years ago, when hewas delivering lucid judgments at 83.Judge Brown, a federal district judge in Kansas, will become the oldest judge in Americanhistory if he is still giving judgments next year.In his earlier career, Judge Brown was known as a fearsomely punctilious character whobecame very angry if people appeared in his court late or casually dressed. He rebukedadvocates if they ever used unacceptably imprecise words like “indicate”. He was verydemanding and one eminent counsel admitted he habitually took a Valium tablet to ease thestress. He called them “Judge Brown pills”.He has mellowed, though, as he’s progressed into his second century.Judge Brown was appointed to the federal bench by President John F Kennedy in 1962. He’sbeen in the business so long that one of his former clerks who worked for him when Brownwas first a judge is now a judge himself in the same federal court building.Judge Brown still hears a full range of criminal cases and some civil litigation but has askedhis close friends to tell him when they think he’s no longer fully capable of carrying out hisduties. “And I hope that when that day comes” he has said “I go out feet first”.The oldest person to have been a judge in Britain was Sir William Taylor who was on thebench in Liverpool aged 93. Judge Brown might well take a deep inhalation from his oxygentube, smile, and recall the easy days of presiding in one’s 90s.In Britain, judges retire at 70. The Council of HM Circuit Judges recently opposed asuggestion that citizens over 70 should be empanelled as jurors. That would, the councilwarned, mean that people who had been compulsorily retired as judges at 70 could go on toperform a similarly critical service as jurors.The law might indulge elderly judges but it hasn’t always been sympathetic to aged peoplewho aren’t judges. In Ireland, Lord Justice Holmes once sentenced a very old man from afarming community to 15 years. The convict cried for mercy saying he would not live to finishthe sentence. “Well,” said the judge, “try to do as much of it as you can.”Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University. His book Weird Cases is publishedby Wildy, Simmonds & HillThese articles were published by The Times Online as part of the weekly column written byGary Slapper