WICHITA, Kan. — 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, who is 103, carefully 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."
Brown is the oldest working federal judge in the nation, one of four appointees by President 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 in an interview. 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 fulltime 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. When he sentenced Kassie Liebsch last month to 37 months for her role in a ticket scalping scandal, he told the tearful 28-year-old woman how much he and other court officials wanted her to succeed in the future.
"As an old man, it is hard for me to say I am sorry it happened," Brown told her. "I know you will do the right thing. Good luck and be well."
Brown also serves a 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."
Melgren, formerly the U.S. attorney for Kansas, recalled that 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. Melgren found that to be sound advice. Melgren said Brown also shares his thoughts on points of law.
"I don't get the perspective that he is stuck in the last century," Melgren said. "His views are pretty much as the rest of us."
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.
Last month Brown ruled in favor of Omaha-based 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."
Brown — who was born on 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.
He began his career in private practice in Hutchinson in 1933 and was appointed U.S. district judge in 1962. He has outlived two wives and only moved into an assisted living center four years ago.
Brown was able to play golf with his staff until 2006. Now, because of his physical limitations, his chief hobby is reading. He prefers murder mysteries and borrows Louis L'Amour westerns from his law clerk.
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."
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