Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Puppy Food and the Supreme Court Shortlist

President Obama, like so many presidents before him, promises not to use a litmus test when selecting the Supreme Court justice to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. This means that he wont let a single issue, actually, that he wont use abortion as the single issue, determine a potential nominee's eligibility. This means, presumably, that he would have judges who oppose Roe v. Wade on his short list - although he doesn't, which is fine with me.

This got me thinking about the term 'litmus test.' I remember from high school, or maybe even middle school science class that a litmus test is when you dip a piece of paper with something (litmus?) on it into a liquid to determine if it is acidic or basic. Why is this a metaphor for using a single issue to cross a potential Supreme Court nominee off the list? Presumably it has to do with the yes/no nature of the test, and of the yes/no nature of the conversation with the potential Supreme Court nominee that a political litmus test implies. The problem is that abortion, or any other single issue, is only one of many criteria that any president, even one who absolutely uses a litmus test would consider.

Being pro-choice (or pro Roe v. Wade, rather) is necessary, but not sufficient to be selected as a justice by someone using a strict litmus test - which makes the metaphor a bit iffy. Surely if choosing a chemical solution is like choosing a Supreme Court justice, there are several questions you would ask of each? Say you were choosing a liquid, a 'solution' I think,  to pour on your rosebushes, or feed to your puppy. You might, if you didn't know anything about this liquid, subject it to a series of tests - each of which if the 'answer' was wrong, would strike this liquid off the list of potential rose or puppy food. Maybe you would ask if it was water soluble, if it was carbon based, if it was radioactive, and you would certainly ask what its PH was - whether it is an acid or a base. There is no more reason to not allow, or even insist on 'litmus tests' in politics than in choosing puppy food - while there may be some traits in a Supreme Court Justice that are negotiable, it seems obvious that there have to be some that aren't.
 Why then, does every President deny that they use this test? What do they gain from it, especially if their short list does not actually have any candidates that would prove otherwise?