WICHITA — In a courtroom in Wichita, 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 one man’s sheer determination.
As lawyers and litigants wait in respectful silence, Brown, 103, carefully steers his power wheelchair behind the bench, his stooped frame almost disappearing behind its wooden bulk. He adjusts the plastic tubes under his nose that are from an oxygen tank next to the day’s case documents. Then his voice rings out loud and firm to his law clerk: “Call your case.”
Brown is the oldest working federal judge in the nation, one of four appointees by President John F. Kennedy still on the bench. Federal judgeships are lifetime appointments, and no one has taken that term more seriously than Brown.
“As a federal judge, I was appointed for life or good behavior, whichever I lose first,” Brown 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 — Brown 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, Brown is one of 516 on “senior status,” a form of semi-retirement 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 Brown, who took senior status in 1979 but still worked full time until recently. In March, he stopped taking new criminal cases and lightened his case load a bit. He still takes his full share of the new civil cases.
“I do it to be a public service,” Brown said. “You got to have a reason to live. As long as you perform a public service, you have a reason to live.”
Brown 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.
Brown is known for his compassion for defendants, even those he sends to prison.
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.”
Brown has a computer on his desk that he uses to keep up with current events and trends. Some parties in lawsuits, however, have been skeptical about the idea of a 103-year-old judge hearing their case.
Brown — who was born June 22, 1907, in Hutchinson, Kan. — is six years older than the next-oldest sitting federal judge. At least eight other federal judges are in their 90s, according to a federal court database. Brown was appointed U.S. district judge in 1962.
Brown 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 this job when I think it is time,” Brown said. “And I hope I do so and leave the country in better shape because I have been a part of it.”
“I will quit this job when I think it is time. And I hope I do so and leave the country in better shape because I have been a part of it.”
— U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown