Justice Antonin Scalia, more than any other Supreme Court justice, set the parameters for the constitutional debates of this era. The sharpness of his mind and the rigor of his jurisprudence were regularly on display up until his passing. As those of us fortunate enough to have directly engaged with him in recent years can attest, up until his last breath, there was no indication that he had dulled in his ability to navigate the incredible intellectual challenges that were his job description.
By working until the age of 79, Scalia had surpassed by a decade and a half the typical retirement age for an American worker, but his mental longevity was no exception: The typical Supreme Court justice does not hang up his or her robe until reaching the age of nearly 80. At 82, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remains at the peak of her powers and serves as the leading voice for the so-called liberal wing of the Court, as did Justice John Paul Stevens up until his retirement at 90.*
Are Supreme Court justices possessed with some sort of superhuman mental resilience (perhaps one that explains how they got to where they are) that allows them special cognitive longevity? Or have they simply lucked into avoiding the sorts of cognitive decline that afflict so many others their age? The answers to these questions have implications far beyond this specialized group of nine, and will only grow in importance as the U.S. workforce ages. The answers also demonstrate that America’s legal structures for addressing age discrimination are, in important respects, out of step with the accepted neurological understanding of aging.