Kopf: To Everything There is a Season

Before you read that which I write next, listen to Judy Collins as she sings “Turn, Turn, Turn! / To Everything There Is A Season.” If nothing else, you will enjoy her magnificent voice.

As I watched Robert Mueller testify before Congress regarding his findings on the Trump investigation, the voice of Collins haunted me. Accurate or not, my impression was that Mueller was far past his “sell by” date. His fumbling, at times incoherent or inaudible responses, coupled with his apparent lack of knowledge of the written report to which he signed his name, reminded me of that which I fear most.

Growing old is, of course, a fact of life. But federal judges are incentivized to hang around by taking senior status.[i] I have had colleagues, dear friends, march on in senior status toward their ninth decade while still sitting on the bench and trying cases. I will be unable to follow in their footsteps.

Let me tell you a secret that I have confessed only to my wife. Within the last year, I was confronted with a jury trial of great complexity. In the years since 1992 when I became a district judge I had never encountered the fear that I felt and revealed to my wife. I feared that I was not up to the task.

I know that I am not as a sharp as I once was. I am beginning to fade away. Points of law that I once could recite chapter and verse from memory elude me. My stamina declines as the surgeons cut and the radiation fried during the last year. Like Mr. Mueller, who is only slightly older than me, sharp lawyers can push me around if I don’t slow down, think hard, and then, given time, resort to the sure-footed retort of years gone by.

To be clear, the physician trained in such things who tested me recently said my cognition was just fine and I had no disease of the brain. Yet, the fear persists. It grips me as nothing I have ever felt before. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am fading away. That terrifies me.

I have always lived in my head. That has been the one place where I felt comfortable. But that place has become a mine field requiring me to step gingerly where I once strode confidently.

I am relieved that Brian Buescher has now been confirmed as a district judge, bringing us back to equilibrium. With his confirmation, I will begin to reduce my caseload and handle mostly habeas corpus cases and prison litigation that require no or very little time on the bench. I will have all the time I need to think through the issues and write with clarity and surety. The important thing is that in several years I will not need a robe because I will work solely in chambers.[ii] That promise gives me great comfort.

If this seems self-indulgent, it probably is, but only partly, Why, then, do I write this?

I write this because doing so allows me to state my fears aloud and with that acknowledgment I strive to make myself a better senior judge by admitting to the public and forcing myself to internalize that for everything there is a season. For me, the oak leaves of fall have arrived, and the biting wind of Nebraska winter approaches.

All the best.

Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)

[i] I am provided with a staff, an office and, at least in my court, as much work as I want. My salary continues whether I work or retire.

[ii] Of course, I could retire, and I would still be paid. But my staff, whom I love, would all be out of their jobs. I need to hang around until 80, if I can, so that they can maximize their retirement benefits. I have a judicial assistant and two career law clerks who have been with me a very long time. I owe them more than I can ever repay. Staying around, assuming I am not slobbering, is my way of trying to partly compensate them for their brilliance, their hard work and their patience with my profane ranting and raving.

17 thoughts on “Kopf: To Everything There is a Season

    1. Richard Kopf

      Skink,

      Thanks my friend.

      Your reference to a bonfire is appropriate. When I no longer need a robe, I am thinking of having my own version of the burning man festival where I torch the robe while reading aloud excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

      Do you have a white suit you can lend me?

      All the best.

      RGK

      1. Skink

        “Do you have a white suit you can lend me?”

        By now, you must know you run the risk of getting one.

        Linen or wool?

        1. Richard Kopf

          Skink,

          You really should become the official dresser of the Admiral. I’m not worthy.

          All the best.

          RGK

  1. L. Phillips

    Thank you, Judge. Out here in the hinterlands fighting the same battle. Intellectually I know that my experience is shared by many, but seeing that abstraction explained in prose that I can understand is a great help.

    BTW, if this post appears to break the “no tummy rubs” rule all who are displeased can bite my wrinkled old butt.

    1. Richard Kopf

      L. Phillips,

      Because I am simpatico, I don’t bite wrinkled old butts. Butt thank you.

      All the best.

      RGK

  2. wilbur

    I retired this April 1st at age 65. I noticed that in the last year runup to then, I was not what I used to be, both physically (which is expected) and mentally. The drop in mental acuity alarmed me, things like general short-term memory and remembering what caselaw held on an issue.

    My friends tell me it’s just part of life.

    1. Richard Kopf

      Wilbur,

      I have friends like yours. I hate them for telling me the truth. That’s not what friends are for.

      All the best.

      RGK

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Judge,
    You are part of the solution, since you have the clarity to recognize a problem and take action, unlike those doddering colleagues who live in denial while clinging to power they are no longer fit to wield.
    Also I have never heard that version of Turn, turn, turn, just the Pete Seeger original and the Byrds’ electric cover.

    1. Richard Kopf

      AC,

      Appearances notwithstanding, I am a sentimentalist. I had a crush on Judy Collins and not only because of her beautiful soprano voice. And, thanks.

      All the best.

      RGK

  4. F. Lee Billy

    This is not only timely, but painful. By the Year 2119, the judicial branch, which is already obsolete, will be sh t-canned into the garbage heap of history We the peoples are becoming increasingly tired of the randomness and the arbitrary natures of the judicial branch.

    It was designed as the weakest branch, but has muscled its way to the forefront, illegally and unlawfully, I might add. It’s unacceptable, and we refuse to tolerate an abusive, out-of-control authoritarian branch of U.S. government. This message approved by Pres. DJT.

Comments are closed.