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Sitting Judge Takes a Stand on Retirement

Ten years of judicial leadership as Lane County Circuit Court Presiding Judge established quite clearly to Mary Ann Bearden that “sitting judge” is more than simply a definition applied to an active judge.

Judges, indeed, do a lot of sitting, she discovered. So much sitting, in fact, that she retired at age 60 to give her back a break.

“Pain was a huge incentive,” Bearden says of her decision to step down from her Circuit Court position in 2012.

When Bearden was seated as Lane County Circuit Court Presiding Judge in 2002, she was the first woman to hold that position. She describes the role as a kind of CEO with responsibility for both administrative issues and legal proceedings.

Four years of prior experience as a trial judge had prepared her for the task, but still, she says, she was “green and young” when she moved into the role of presiding judge. The work was demanding and stressful, but it was the sitting part of her service as a “sitting judge” that tipped the scales toward early retirement.

“I have chronic back problems and it was very difficult to maintain my wellness with the schedule of a presiding judge. I needed to have more freedom and see if I could break the cycle of pain that I was in. When I retired, my financial situation wasn’t as good as it could have been if I waited, but I was so tired from fighting pain every day that I didn’t have anything left. I felt like I was neglecting those I loved, including myself.”

Sitting Judge finds the Bench

Delivers A Hard Seat

Bearden’s back pains didn’t begin on the bench, but sitting definitely aggravated chronic problems that stemmed from a fall at age 35. Two years after stepping down as presiding judge, she has no regrets about choosing an early retirement.

“It worked,” she says. She is able to manage back pain now with more consistent exercise and less sitting.

Bearden’s struggle with the physical consequences of a job that required so much sitting sparked my curiosity. I wondered about the common complications encountered by people whose work involves a lot of time in a chair. Does a sitting judge suffer different work-related issues than a standing dentist, for example? Do those challenges impact retirement decisions, or life after retirement?

What I found surprised me— just when we reach an age where we think we have earned the right to sit down and take a load off, it’s apparently the worst thing we can do! A study published this year in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health reveals that too much sitting contributes not only to back pain, but also significantly increases risk of disability in people 60 and over!

The more you sit, the more likely you are to suffer disabilities that interfere with daily life as you advance past 60, including difficulties with bathing, dressing, and walking, the study warns.

I looked further and found a flurry of current academic research corroborating the perils of taking a seat. Researchers point to sitting as a factor in increased risk of heart failure, type 2 diabetes, death from cancer, and stroke in people over 60. It may also affect mood and creativity.

If you Think Retirement Means

A Chance to Sit Down, Better Think Again

This is not particularly good news for folks who have been thinking of retirement as an opportunity to sit by the fire and read, or write the family history, or embark on a cross-country road trip. Even staying fit and active, it turns out, isn’t enough to offset the damage of sitting too much or too long. It’s extended and regular periods of inactivity that raise the risk of disability and disease as we age.

“It means older adults need to reduce the amount of time they spend sitting, whether in front of the TV or at the computer, regardless of their participation in moderate or vigorous activity” concludes one of the researchers.

(Bear with me a minute. I’m getting up from my desk. Okay, I’ve rigged up a portable file box to hold my computer so I can stand up while I keep writing! It’s feeling a little awkward but worth getting used to!)

Need more convincing? Try an Internet search for “horrible things that can happen if you sit too long” and you’ll be standing up too!

Although Mary Ann Bearden now spends a lot more time moving than she did as a presiding judge, the sitting is not over. When presiding judges retire from circuit court service they face a five-year commitment to return to the bench part-time to cover for judges who are out for medical or military reasons. On average, the temporary fill-in work adds up to about two months a year, Bearden says, creating a gradual retirement.

Work has been a steady presence in Bearden’s life since she took her first job selling ice cream cones at age 14. She assumes there will be more work down the line.“I’m not chaffing, not anxiously awaiting the day I am free of this position because this is a good transition for me, and I’m not yet sure what I am transitioning to,” she says. “I don’t want what I do next to be a desperate act.”

As she mulls the future, she spends as much time as she can standing up –- preferably on the bank of a trout stream. Bearden caught her first trout at age 18 and never forgot the thrill.

“I’m a very serious catch and release angler,” she admits. “I fished through college and law school. As I became older and my work more all-consuming, fishing became more and more important to me. It was the only way, during my long working career, to completely get away. It allows me to get into a state of mind where I am experiencing the world around me without words. It’s the dessert of my life.”

As much as she values the time that retirement gives her for fishing, and for fitness, friendships, reading, or walking her two dogs, Bearden values even more the freedom that has come with stepping out of the limelight as a highly visible figure in local media.

“For me, it’s a relief not to have the attention that came as a judge. I’m happy not to be in the news anymore. I don’t miss it at all,” she says. “It was very important or me to do a good job and to make litigation move smoothly for the people who were in font of the court, but not having that responsibility is awesome. I did it as well as I could, and it’s somebody else’s turn now.”

Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer and author of The Spirited Walker and Healing Walks for Hard Times. Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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