Roger writing the LAWmag

104 Year Old Judge, Wesley E. Brown. A Modern Solomon.

For those in the justice system, judges and lawyers, old age equates to legal wisdom. This, since times immemorial. The Bible, the Koran, Hinduism, classics of literature: all use the persona of an elder to be the spokesperson of imminent judicial wisdom.

Wesley E. BrownIn many professions, old age eventually means professional irrelevance followed by retirement.

Not in law. New York attorney Ruby Landau practised law until the age of 103. Indian solicitor Shivram Abhyankar is still going strong at 101.

But judges rarely work into their 70s or even 80s. Many jurisdictions have retirement requirements, usually set at 75 and thank goodness, as any lawyer who has had to argue a case before any judge over the age of 65 knows-all-too-well as those judges are inevitably know-it-all's.

Over a century ago, on June 22, 1907, in Hutchinson, Kansas, Julia and Morey Brown welcomed into the world a healthy little boy while on the other side of the world, in Russia, the events that would later be parabled in Animal Farm were just taking place. The first taxis (London), the Boy Scouts and the first female candidates in elections (Finland) were making their debut. Newfoundland and New Zealand acquired some independence and were named Dominions of England. It was a year many contemporary academics knew as MCMVII; as Marconi started his transatlantic radio communication between Ireland and Nova Scotia. Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne were born in 1907, Adolf Hitler was an unknown 18-year old Austrian student and Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States. Telephones were wooden hand-cranked party-line affairs.

As a youngster, Wesley Brown would have heard of the exploits of bank robber Eddie Adams, an infamous native of their shared home town of Hutchinson, who went on a 14-month crime spree killing seven people until he was finally cornered and gunned down in a wild downtown Wichita gunfight in 1921. According to Federal Lawyer magazine, one of young Wesley's high school teachers was Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

Morey Brown was a successful businessman but he was hit by a crippling illness in 1915. His son Wesley E. had to find a job, though only 10, and he started selling the Saturday Evening Post.

A decade later, Wesley struck out for Lawrence, Kansas and got a job at the local Ford Motor Company, on the production line of the Model A. At night, he attended first the University of Kansas and later, the Kansas City School of Law (now the University of Missouri School of Law at Kansas City). In 1931, as the Great Recession was hitting North America, the automobile company asked him to prepare 3,000 pink slips. Brown dutifully typed them all up until he got the last one and saw that the name on it was his own.

By 1933, Wesley Brown had his law degree and was a member of the Kansas Bar - a lawyer at last - and he married fellow law student, Mary Brown, eventually having two children, Miller and Loy (Mary died and Wesley remarried in 1994, to Sis Brown). His first attorney job was with Williams, Martindell & Carey at $25 a month.

In 1935, the young Hutchinson lawyer, a lifelong Democrat, ran for the office of Reno County Attorney under a banner of "Enforce The Law" against his opponent's motto: "Enforce Prohibition"! The job came with a $3,000 annual salary. Brown was elected for two consecutive terms interrupted only by his service in World War II. In 1944, he enlisted with the United States Navy but never saw active duty, instead participating in the cleanup operations as the Navy advanced and eventually defeated Japan in the Pacific (Brown once remarked that he must have been "the oldest lieutenant in the Navy").

Brown returned to Kansas and quietly practised law for 25 more years until 1958 when he was appointed bankruptcy judge. This meant a move to Wichita.

Attorneys in American courts do not wear robes but judges do. When Wesley put on the judicial robe for the first time, he complained about the awkward garment, to which his colleague replied:

"You find out it's just like your underwear. After a while, you can't get along without it."

Four years later, the then-American President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, later serving as chief judge from 1972 until 1979.

Wesley Brown in Court

On several occasions Wesley E. brown was courted for national political office but he always declined. As an American judge, he is a strange bird in that he takes pain to keep politics out of his office, an opinion stained only by the remote dis-ingenuousness of the fact that he was appointed by a Democratic president.

In any event, Brown says, rightfully so:

"My code of conduct says we do not get involved with politics. Of course we have our own views about things (but) if you have an agenda that you are trying to carry out rather than the law, then you are inclined to interpret the law to suit your agenda. I don't believe in that. It's not what somebody else thinks it is, whether it satisfies their sense of fair play. Justice, as far as the courts are concerned, is a determination of the issues in accordance with the law and the procedures that we have. That's justice."

This judgeship, some 49 years later, he still holds. He has a reduced caseload and starts his day at 8:30 a.m. he has been, for some time, the oldest active Federal judge in the USA.

Still, it is with professional love and affection that the entire legal world must watch the progress of the Hon. Wesley E. Brown, as he shuffles into the office bearing the nameplate: "Wesley E. Brown, Senior Judge".

Judge Wesley E. Brown was appointed to the federal bench in 1962. He attended law school at the University of Kansas City. In 1972, when he reached 65, he could retire at full salary, he soldiered on. In 1979 he took senior status and briefly sat on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. His tenure as a senior judge surpasses the average tenure of most judges. By some estimates, he has resolved some 5,000 cases.

Brown, an avid reader who professes to read three books a month, he says:

"Age is a state of mind. I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve. It has kept me going. I have never thought of my position as a judge as one of power, it's one of obligation. I owe the people a great obligation to be worthy of their trust."

Brown is revered in Wichita. Numerous stories and Internet videos attest to his legacy; for example,

In one interview he said:

"I always think of the Constitution ... not something telling people what to do, but it says what government can't do to people."

He told the Wichita Eagle newspaper in 2010:

"I do Google a little bit. You can get 150-billion articles in 2 seconds (on a given search query). That's a long way from when the typewriters first came in or the Pony Express, which was in my lifetime.

Wesley Brown leaving courthouse"I don't have an IPhone. If I used one, I'd probably know too much. You'd think we'd be able to get the answers to some of our problems with all the available information we got on Google."

Since Brown was appointed in 1962, life expectancy has doubled. The appointment at the time guaranteed tenure for life or during good behaviour, whichever ended first. On the Supreme Court of the United states, Oliver Wendell Holmes retired from the bench when he was 91 years old, and only after his colleagues on the court suggested retirement. More recently, John Paul Stevens only retired in 2010, after he reached the age of 93.

There have been too many instances of judges hanging on. A recent Globe and Mail story revealed that when the then-chief justice of Canada's Supreme Court Anthony Lamer resigned in 1999, he was being coaxed out by Court colleagues behind the scenes, who were concerned with his loss of focus and consumption of wine. 

The heavily stooped and bespectacled figure of the Honorable Wesley Brown is an institution in the Wichita Courthouse, one that has already been memorialized by the renaming of the local lawyer hang-out, the Wesley E. Brown Inn of Court. He has a cell phone and a computer (his email is But time is catching up to this icon of the common law. Now, during hearings, according to the New York Times, a tube feeds him oxygen. He jokes with the lawyers that he may not live to see their cases to completion. Admirably, he has asked his colleagues to push him out should he falter intellectually.

On July 25, 2011, Wesley E. Brown will become the oldest judge in the history of the American federal courts, 104 years and 36 days; older than Joseph William Woodrough who died on October 2, 1977 at the age of 104 years, 35 days, while serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth District.

Brown is realistic about his chances of beating the other record owned by Woodrough who had reached his 61st year as a Federal court judge: 17 on the U.S. District Court (Nebraska) and another 44 on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth District.

"At this age," quips Judge Brown, "I'm not even buying green bananas."


Posted in Legal History, Legal Profession and Lawyers

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