On June 19, 1981 a vigorously healthy Justice Potter Stewart resigned from the Supreme Court at the age of 66. "I've always been a firm believer in the principle that it's better to go too soon than to stay too long. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to have an opportunity to spend more time with my wife, Andy, and hopefully, with our children and grandchildren while I was still relatively young and healthy," Stewart said. Stewart died suddenly only four years later, at age 70, so he and his family must have been especially grateful for those last years.
Stewart's resignation made news not only because it opened a vacancy on the Court, but as well because it is so rare to see a man give up power with the certainty that there are more important things in his life—family, to begin with. More typical was a case I saw close up in the 1980s (as a staffer for Senator Daniel P. Moynihan and then a State Department official in the Reagan administration), that of Senator Jacob Javits of New York. At age 76 in 1980 and already suffering from ALS, he would not retire. He insisted on running again, only to lose the primary to Alphonse D'Amato, who became New York's next senator. It seemed that being a senator was all there was to Javits's life. After his defeat he would still not go home, if indeed he had a home any longer in New York. He prevailed upon President Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz to give him some kind of advisory position at State, where I had occasion to brief the pathetic figure: in a wheel chair, using oxygen tubes, awake and asleep on and off from one minute the next. What an end to a long public career.