Why aren't there upper-age limits for serving on the Supreme Court or as the President of the United States?

What if while in office one of these officials starts to develop dementia or some other age related disease that affects their judgement or thinking skills?

  • 2
    Is your question limited to the federal government? Because there are upper-age limits for government officials in many U.S. state and local governments. For example, Colorado Constitution, Article IV, Section 23(1) requires judges to retire at age 72.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 20, 2017 at 23:34
  • 1
    Because dementia does not affect all people, and of those affected, not all are affected at the same age. (E.g. my neighbor, who was mentally acute up until his death, at 102.) Indeed, some people would argue that dementia is not an insuperable obstacle to being elected to office in the first place :-(
    – jamesqf
    Aug 21, 2017 at 17:59
  • This is why we have the 25th Amendment. The 25th is a superior option to an age limit because it is based on an individualized evaluation of the actual situation that is actually occurring. The problem is making sure it is reliably used. Jan 24, 2020 at 3:29

4 Answers 4


Short Answer

The short answer is that no one thought to include such provisions in the United States Constitution that was adopted in 1789, and that it is very hard to amend the United States Constitution (although one amendment that partially addresses this concern, the 25th, has been adopted).

This is understandable. Dementia at an advanced age was a significantly less salient issue in 1789, when life expectancies were much shorter, than they are today. The average life expectancy in the time period from 1750 to 1800 was 36 years. Even conditional upon attaining age 20, the life expectancy for white men was under 50 years of age, throughout the 1800s. Most people died before they were old enough for age related dementia to be a major concern.

Federal Elected Officials

The upper age limit for serving as U.S. President is eight years older than the candidate was when he was elected, with voter review after four years. If the voters elect someone, they do so with the understanding that the President will serve at least another four years and evaluate for themselves if that is too old. In practice, age is frequently raised as an issue in the Presidential nomination process and in Presidential elections, although it is hard to identify a particular election in which it was a decisive factor.

The same thing happens in every legislative election.

Also, the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted to address the question of Presidential incapacity, and federal legislators can be removed by the house in which they were elected for cause by a two-thirds majority (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 5, Clause 2).

Federal Judges

In the case of judges, there is only the remedy of impeachment for non-feasance resulting from failure to carry out the duties of the office as a consequence of old age related conditions. But, the compensation system for federal judges in the United States creates a very powerful economic incentive to retire at a reasonable retirement age by virtue of how the defined benefit pension plan works, that most judges assent to not long after reaching that age. As explained in the linked material:

Financial concerns were paramount for judges who retired after senior status, as well as for judges who retired directly from active service, according to the survey results presented on Sunday. “I wanted more income” was the most popular reason cited for retirement for both groups. . . .

Federal judges can retire or take senior status, with the option of a reduced workload, if they satisfy the “rule of 80.” The requirement says they must be age 65 or older, and their combined age and years of experience must total 80. It is an attractive option because their pay remains the same, but their taxes fall because they don’t have to pay taxes for Social Security or Medicare.

In other words, if judges retire once meeting the "rule of 80" they can get the same pay with less taxes without doing any work, and can take senior judge assignments in the discretion of the chief judge of their court for additional pay, while vacating their position. If a chief judge feels that a senior judge is no longer intellectually able to do the work, the chief judge can decline to assign a senior judge to more cases.

Only at the U.S. Supreme Court level is the power associated with holding the post so great relative to financial considerations, that the compensation system incentives don't work, and it is arguable that in the case, for example, of Justice O'Connor, that the compensation factor was an important reason for her resignation.

The concern is also mitigated at the U.S. Supreme Court level, and even at the Court of Appeals level, because those judges mostly make decisions as part of a panel of judges, rather than individually. So, if the other judges on the panel make the right decision, the incompetent judge's decision doesn't matter.

For trial court judges, the prospect of appellate review of their decisions partially mitigates the risk of a judge making bad decisions due to declining intellectual capacity.

State and Local Age Limits And Disability Rules

Most states have chosen not to follow the federal example with regard to judges and have either imposed a constitutional retirement age, as in the case of Colorado, where Colorado Constitution, Article IV, Section 23(1) requires judges to retire at age 72, and/or have a commission overseeing judges (and sometimes other civil servants) that can require them to retire due to disabilities which often arise from old age.

Term limits, which are common at the state and local government level, also often impose de facto age limits, because most very elderly elected officials mandated to be so old by being re-elected many times after being first elected at a much younger age. Term limits limit the extent to which this can happen.

  • "the compensation system for federal judges in the United States creates a very powerful economic incentive to retire at a reasonable retirement age by virtue of how the defined benefit pension plan works, that most judges assent to not long after reaching that age." This may be true, but you don't link to how it works much less an explanation of why it encourages judges to retire.
    – Brythan
    Aug 21, 2017 at 0:30
  • @Brythan Further elaboration and a link added.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 21, 2017 at 0:52
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    +1, very thorough answer. But in practice, the only fitness test for a member of Congress is the ability to win an election. People have been elected to the US Senate when they were already dead. Aug 21, 2017 at 9:39
  • @RoyalCanadianBandit I am aware of those instances, although in fairness, electing a dead guy immediately results in a vacancy as the dead guy can't take the oath of office.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 21, 2017 at 15:43
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    You might also remember that the framers of the Constitution had among the delegates 81 year old Ben Franklin.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 21, 2017 at 18:08

The short, cynical answer would be that laws have mostly been made by old men. Further, that older people tend to look at younger people (not without some justification) as less "wise", experienced, and competent, and that older people too frequently do not imagine or perceive their own decline in ability, and even if they do they have no interest in giving up what power and privilege they may have acquired.

If you made the laws, in any country, under any form of government, would you make one that forced you to give up anything? Why would it even occur to you to do such a thing?

  • Your assumption that answer is cynical is likely spot on. An answer that does not take into account the poor medical outcomes of the 1700's and that those with diseases would die and would not have hospice care and other medical treatments to keep one alive and functioning but impaired.
    – paulj
    May 29, 2023 at 22:45

Excluding people based on a personal attribute that is not under their control due to some statistical correlation is pretty much the textbook definition of discrimination. Discrimination based on age is sometimes also called ageism.

In most modern Western societies – including the United States – most people strongly believe we should judge people based on individual merits. This is a position help by both the left and right, although opinions differ on how to best enact on this (e.g. see affirmative action).

This can be traced back to (classical) liberalism and individualism, which has massively influenced almost all modern Western political views.

In the specific case of age-correlated mentally debilitating diseases, some people develop Alzheimer's disease as early as their fifties – known as early-onset Alzheimer's disease – while other live to be over a hundred and never develop it.

It's true that age is correlated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease and other causes of dementia, but it's far from a certainty; it only develops in about 5 to 8 per cent of people. In other words: it's far from certain that Alzheimer's of some other disease causing dementia develops.

  • 2
    Nice answer, but the two firs paragraphs raise the issue of the minimum age for voting or for becoming POTUS.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 20, 2017 at 23:43
  • @SJuan76 the minimum age stems from the older requirement for all voters to be "adults of sound mind" (and in some societies, of military age and/or taxpayers).
    – jwenting
    Aug 21, 2017 at 6:10
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    Do they have a lower limit on age? Can a 13 years old be a president? If the answer is no, then all that you wrote does not make any sense because based on your answer excluding people based on a personal attribute that is not under their control (discrimination works both way) Aug 21, 2017 at 17:01
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    Of course which age someone is "developed enough" is a tricky discussion (and I believe we have a question on that), but I do think that the cases of "too young" and "too old" are different in this specific case.
    – user11249
    Aug 21, 2017 at 18:14
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    this is flawed reasoning: show me a 13-year old with the reasoning powers of a 40-year old. This way I can tell you: show me a 100 years old with a reasoning power of 40 years old. Also if we can't find 13, I can show you a lot of 19 years old or 20 or 23. Also the fact that you will be in favour means nothing because as far as I understood the law does not allow people who are younger than 35. Do you really believe that I will not be able to find 33 years old with a reasoning of 36 years old? If the answer is no, then all that you wrote does not make any sense Aug 21, 2017 at 18:30

The obvious question is, what would the age limit be? If you institute any age limit it would almost certainly be accused of being Ageism.

Your main question, what would happen if someone gets something like dementia in office, is largely covered by section 4 of the 25th amendment (emphasis mine):

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

So in other words, if the VP and enough members of government agree that the president is unable to discharge the duties of office for any reason (such as dementia) they can remove the president from office immediately.

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    In saying that, one could apply ageism to minimum age requirements.
    – DariM
    Aug 21, 2017 at 2:58
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    @jamesqf Perhaps (arguably with situations and people constantly changing, I'd say that's not at all helpful or a "cure"), but the idea of where you draw the line of "too young" or "too old" is equally arbitrary. A minimum requirement of 35 for President for example has no real basis in any accepted scientific measure or anything like that.
    – DariM
    Aug 21, 2017 at 21:21
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    @DariM: Perhaps it has no scientific basis, but it certainly has a practical one, experience. It takes time to accumulate, especially in today's world.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 23, 2017 at 4:58
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    @jamesqf At the rate world is changing, experience is increasingly overrated. Experience from 30 years ago might just as well be a detriment to good judgement.
    – M i ech
    Jan 24, 2020 at 10:15
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    @M i ech: OTOH, if you've been around a while (and studied a bit of history), you might realize that the world really doesn't change all that much.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 24, 2020 at 17:33

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