Fixing the broken Supreme Court

Linda Greenhouse:

In other words, it was raw politics all the way down, without even a fig leaf of a nonpolitical rationale. I’m not naïve. All presidents yearn for a Supreme Court legacy, and many tell fibs about the nominees they choose. President Reagan presented Robert H. Bork as a “moderate.” He wasn’t. President George H. W. Bush described Clarence Thomas as the best-qualified person for the job. He wasn’t. That’s all just part of the game. Of course the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process is political; how could it be otherwise?

But the Republicans rewrote the rules well before their decision last week to abolish the filibuster for Supreme Court confirmation votes. Making an existing Supreme Court vacancy a highly visible part of an electoral strategy stamps the court as an electoral prize, pure and simple. In doing so, it places the court in a position of real institutional peril.

It’s a development that couldn’t have come at a worse time for the court, its legitimacy already threatened by a polarization that mirrors the political identity of each justice: The conservatives were all appointed by Republican presidents and the liberals by Democrats. That was not the case until recently.

And Ezra Klein:

Here, in truth, is where the past few years have left us. The minority party no longer holds a scintilla of power over Supreme Court picks. The majority party can and will jam whomever they want onto the Court, where that person will serve for life. But in times when the Senate and the White House are controlled by different parties — which happens fairly often — there’s almost no chance that any seat on the Court will be filled.

This is an insane way to manage one of the most powerful institutions in American life. Bu the decorous, gentle equilibrium of yesteryear was also nonsensical. There’s always been something bizarre about the idea that a position as important, as long-serving, and as irreversible as Supreme Court justice should be made based on qualifications rather than ideology.

Politics isn’t a résumé competition, it’s a contest for power, and the wielding of that power has real consequences. In practice, the Supreme Court decides how elections are funded, whether abortions are legal, whether millions of people will continue to have health insurance — if elected politicians and activist groups see its composition as a matter of life and death, that’s because it often is…

The core problem here is the stakes of Supreme Court nominations: They’re too damn high. Candidates serve for life — which, given modern life spans and youthful nominees, can now mean 40 years of decisions — and no one knows when the next seat will open. President Jimmy Carter served four years and saw no open seats. President George H.W. Bush served four years and filled two.

The result isn’t merely an undemocratic branch of government but a randomly undemocratic branch of government. And that randomness, and the stakes of seeing it play out in your side’s favor, makes it necessary to game the system in ways that are bad for everyone. It creates incentives for justices to stay on the bench long after the point at which they should’ve retired, in the hopes that they can outlast an ideologically unfriendly administration. It biases presidents toward nominating the youngest qualified jurist they can find, rather than the best jurist they can find.

So, what to do?  Ezra is for Supreme Court term limits.  Somehow, something both Rick Perry and Ezra Klein both endorse is either a really good idea or a really bad one.  In this case, I think it’s likely the former.  Personally, I find the “randomly undemocratic” aspect particularly compelling.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see this happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.

Just eat it already

Damn, I love Aaron Carroll.  Here’s a great Upshot post on why he eats food off the floor.  I do to.  It occurred to me that I’ll think nothing of helping my daughter put her shoes on or picking something up off the floor before eating.  And, really, there’s not that much difference between either of those than just picking the frosted mini-wheat up off the floor.

Yes, regular hand-washing is important, but, at some level, you’ve got to just chill and accept that we’re totally surrounded by bacteria and just do what you can to keep your immune system healthy (personally, I’m a fan of fruits, vegetables, exercise, fortunate genetics, and enough sleep).

Anyway, Carroll makes the point that there’s way more bacteria to worry about in places other than the floor.  Like places you touch with your hands:

Our metric shouldn’t be whether there are more than zero bacteria on the floor. It should be how many bacteria are on the floor compared with other household surfaces. And in that respect, there are so many places in your house that pose more of a concern than the floor…

They found that the kitchen floor was likely to harbor, on average, about three colonies per square inch of coliform bacteria (2.75 to be exact). So there are some. But here’s the thing — that’s cleaner than both the refrigerator handle (5.37 colonies per square inch) and the kitchen counter (5.75 colonies per square inch).

We spend so much time worrying about what food might have picked up from the floor, but we don’t worry about touching the refrigerator. We also don’t seem as worried about food that touches the counter. But the counter is just as dirty, if not dirtier.

The same thing happens in the bathroom. I know a lot of people who are worried about the toilet seat, but it’s cleaner than all the things in the kitchen I just mentioned (0.68 colonies per square inch). What’s dirtier in the bathroom? Almost everything. The flush handle (34.65 colonies per square inch), the sink faucet (15.84 colonies per square inch) and the counter (1.32 colonies per square inch).

Things get dirty when lots of hands touch them and when we don’t think about it. We worry about the floor and the toilet seat, so we clean them more. We don’t think about the refrigerator handle or the faucet handle as much…

The alternative is to realize that for most of us, our immune systems are pretty hardy. We’ve all been touching this dirty stuff for a long time, without knowing it, and doing just fine.

I clearly fall into the latter group. If I drop food on the floor, I still eat it. I do that because the harm I might get from the floor is not worth my concern compared with many, many other things. You may feel differently. Either way, make an informed judgment based on relative risks, not on any arbitrary span of time that one thing has been touching another.

So, there you go, eat that food off the floor.  Oh, and maybe clean some of those much-handled surfaces more often.  I know I’m going to be looking at that refrigerator handle :-).

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