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Published: Monday, 4/11/2011

Federal judge, 103, still hears cases, amazes colleagues

ASSOCIATED PRESS
U.S. Federal District Judge Wesley Brown U.S. Federal District Judge Wesley Brown
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WICHITA, Kan. -- In a Wichita courtroom, the day begins much as it has for the past 49 years: Court is in session, U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown presiding. But what happens next is no longer routine; it's a testament to sheer determination.

As lawyers and litigants wait in respectful silence, Judge Brown, who is 103, steers his power wheelchair behind the bench, his stooped frame almost disappearing behind its wooden bulk. He adjusts under his nose the plastic tubes from the oxygen tank lying next to the day's case documents. Then his voice rings out loud and firm to his law clerk, "Call your case."

He is the nation's oldest working federal judge, one of four appointees by President Kennedy still on the bench. Federal judgeships are lifetime appointments; no one has taken that more seriously than he.

"As a federal judge, I was appointed for life or good behavior, whichever I lose first," he quipped. How does he plan to leave the post? "Feet first," he says.

In a profession where advanced age isn't unusual -- and, indeed, is valued as a source of judicial wisdom -- he has left legal colleagues awestruck by his stamina and devotion to work. His service also epitomizes how the federal court system keeps working even as litigation steadily increases, new judgeships remain rare, and judicial openings go unfilled for months or years.

"Senior judges keep the federal court system afloat, given the rising case loads," said David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Of the 1,294 sitting federal judges, Judge Brown is one of 516 on "senior status," a form of semiretirement that allows a judge to collect his salary but work at a reduced case level if he chooses. They handle almost a quarter of federal district trials.

And no one alive has logged more service than Judge Brown, who took senior status in 1979 but worked full time until recently. In March he stopped taking new criminal cases and lightened his case load. He takes his full share of the new civil cases.

"I do it to be a public service," he said. "You got to have a reason to live. As long as you perform a public service, you have a reason to live."

He gets a ride to the federal courthouse at 8:30 a.m. every workday from the assisted living center where he lives. Until he was in his 90s, he climbed the stairs to his fourth-floor chambers. He works until about 3 p.m. presiding over hearings, reading court filings, and discussing cases with his law clerks, who handle the legal research.

In one concession to age, he keeps court hearings relatively short. But he listens intently to testimony and tells defendants to speak up or slow down if he has trouble following their statements. And, if necessary, he can be stern with lawyers, prodding them in a strong voice not to waste time.

He is known for his compassion for defendants, even those he sends to prison. When he sentenced Kassie Liebsch last month to 37 months for her role in a ticket scalping scandal, he told the 28-year-old woman how much he and other court officials wanted her to succeed in the future.

He also serves as senior statesman in the courthouse, giving colleagues the benefit of his long experience.

"He never pressures us or tells us what to do," said District Judge Eric Melgren, 54. "He shares his thoughts and we can benefit as we see fit."

Judge Melgren, formerly the U.S. attorney for Kansas, recalled that Judge Brown took him aside after he became top federal prosecutor and advised him that the most important decisions he would make would be the ones no one knew about -- the ones in which he declined to prosecute someone. Judge Melgren found that to be sound advice. He said Judge Brown also shares his thoughts on points of law.

Some parties in lawsuits, however, have been skeptical about the idea of a 103-year-old judge hearing their case. Last month he ruled in favor of Omaha's Northern Natural Gas Co. in its bid to condemn more than 9,100 acres in south-central Kansas to contain gas migrating from an underground storage facility. The decision angered some of the 173 property owners affected.

"I don't care how good a guy he is," said Dorothy Trinkle of Preston, one of the landowners. "Your mental and physical attributes diminish with age and I think there should be a cutoff date for federal judges. This is ridiculous to have him in there at that age."

He has asked his colleagues to notify him if at any point they feel he is no longer able to do his job.

"I will quit when I think it is time," he said. "And I hope I do so and leave the country in better shape because I have been a part of it."



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