It’s time to re-think life time appointment of Supreme Court Judges !


The whole drama around the process of confirmation of Kavanaugh as a judge in the SCOTUS is a wake up call for the citizens of USA to address the underlying problem – the life time appointments of judges to the highest court. I want to share a few of my thoughts on this topic

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Does life time appointment make judges impartial and reduce pressure on them ?

I think our reflex is to say “of course, it does”. I don’t think that is true actually. Life time tenure gives them job security and prestige obviously, but their fundamental political and economic leanings do stay with them as we have seen from predictable judgements time and again. As long as they know exactly how long they have the job – there is no reason why they should feel extra pressure to make impartial decisions in their tenure.

USA is probably the only democracy with this issue

As far as I can find out, there is either a mandatory retirement age or a term limit for judges in the highest courts of other countries. Some countries seem to have a combination of both . If you know of exceptions, I will gladly stand corrected. But if we are unique like I think we are – at least we can look at countries who have solved this problem in the past and get some ideas. It may be interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of life time appointments . And as far as I can find out – Rhode Island is the only state in this country that allows life time tenure for their judges. Should that not make us sit up and think harder about the federal system ?

Age – both too young and too old – is a real problem

When it comes to being the highest court, age comes as a problem in two flavors. Presidents like young judges because their party’s interests will be taken care for a very long time. Too young judges being appointed unfortunately means that judges with more to offer than the young ones get overlooked all the time strictly because of age. The second flavor of the problem is that we no longer know if the very old judges have the ability to make high quality decisions, or whether they are just the face of what their law clerks decide. With medical science improving – the chance of longer life of judges is the trend we should bet on. There is a reason why most professions have a retirement age !

Unhealthy confirmations need to be avoided 

SCOTUS is too important in a democratic setup to have judge appointments turned into political drama. But since the confirmations only come at random points – both parties have all the incentive to push for extremes. Also, it is impossible to plan adequately for the next judge if we don’t know when the next vacancy will come. Should we not develop the top legal talent in a planned way for this top job, as opposed to rush through the process in short order ?

There are several implementation issues to work through

There is practically no way to make any overnight changes – any change will need to be phased in over a long period of time. For the younger judges, there will be always a question of what can they do after retirement. Pension plans will need to be revisited. There needs to be a debate on how long should the tenure be – but if we go by history, it converges naturally around 15-18 years on average. We will need a constitutional amendment probably to get this done – but that is not something we have shied away from in the past. 22nd Amendment to limit Presidents to serve only two terms is a good example – and that was in 1951.

An honor system could work just fine too 

Before FDR, Presidents just left office by themselves after 8 years by themselves (or nudged to do so). Our judges could follow such an honor code too – that they just choose to leave the bench after a certain number of years, say 15. That would be an awesome precedent to set – and will probably make it a lot less frictionless process than a constitutional amendment. The 22nd Amendment was passed by Congress in 1947 – but it took till 1951 to get states to ratify it. All of that can be avoided if the current Supreme Court judges set a great example themselves.

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Finding time


If there is one sentence I have heard the most as an excuse in my career, it would be “I didn’t have the time to get to it”. This would be totally fine if it came from someone who had to do multiple jobs to take care of their family, or something along similar lines. But no – I am talking about people with one job that pays reasonably well. They are truly sorry about it most of the time too – they wanted it done and perhaps even wanted to do more tasks than the one they are referring to at the moment. Corporate world is full of them – and I was one of them .

To add to their woes – since they can’t find time to do everything on their plate, then they start worrying that this is detrimental to their family life, their career progression and general sanity . All of which may be true too in many cases.

Heroics do get rewarded in the corporate world – some of these folks get promoted to senior roles and the time crunch becomes even more acute for them. Eventually some find the way out of this , and unfortunately several just burn out or at least hit their Peter principle limits.

I want to share some thoughts on how to find the time that appears so elusive

I work under two constraints – 1. Big and small decisions both tax the brain 2. Brain only has finite capacity to make quality decisions

Picking the right shoes to wear, deciding what to order at Starbucks, deciding who to promote in your team, deciding how to message bad news to your client – these are all decisions that we need to make, sometimes on the same day. And we need some reserve capacity to deal with the inevitable surprises ( like Starbucks is out of green tea , your favorite promotion candidate has taken another job at your competitor ) that need quick thinking.

So the way I approach this is to minimize new decisions I need to make. Have a process with default values for routine decision making (For me – If I have a standard simple order for Starbucks , and a go to pair of shoes ).

Next, I tier decisions into A,B,C .

A level problems – the ones that move he needle, and ones I am uniquely qualified to solve – needs high quality thinking . These are like deciding on the next promotion candidate, or what school to enroll your kid . That needs focus without distraction , and probably a lot of data collection when time permits. Thankfully this is the minority of all decisions you need to take . So all the surplus thinking/doing capacity you make by having good strategies on B and C can be used for A.

B level problems are ones you can take the help of someone else to decide, and your value add is in quality assurance . The solutions are not unique, and are minor variations of things we already know how to do. In my world, a routine proposal response doesn’t need my time to draft – that can be delegated to my team. My value add is in the review process and providing guard rails.

For this to work – What is a B decision for me must be an A decision for who I delegate to . If it’s a B problem for me , and it’s a B problem for the team I pass it on to – then it will just keep getting delegated till someone who looks at it as an A problem gets it. When this happens – the right question to ask and solve for is why I was the one to be asked to solve it in the first place.

Then there are the C decisions – low risk and low reward types. Here I run on autopilot as my default option. If the Starbucks line is long, I am happy to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine and move on. But if I can’t find anything at all – I am happy to move on with no beverage too. FYI emails that have no explicit request for you to act is a C problem. Ignore it (or glance at it ) and move on .

Know your available time so that you can optimize it . For me – that means I decide upfront all the personal activities I won’t compromise on like picking my kiddo from school when I am not traveling, sleeping 7-8 hours every day, tending to my garden on weekends , reading a book etc . Those are explicitly marked as blocked time on my calendar . So I know exactly how much time I have left to tackle the problems I know of . I also block some time every day for potential A level problems . If none seem to appear by previous night, I will release the block to do something else.

Convert as many A problems to B problems to give yourself even more capacity . It’s an A problem because you are uniquely qualified to solve it. Start involving your team in those decisions so that they know how to do it too and then you can make it a B problem for you and an A problem for them. When most of your erstwhile A problems become B problems, and your boss agrees that is the case – then you are ready for your next role!

In your quest to optimize your life and career, please don’t overlook what’s on your team’s plate. If you delegate more than they have skills and capacity for – you still have the same problem as before , but now instead of just your boss hating you – your team hates you too 🙂

Control what gets into your plate . Since in most cases we can’t choose who our bosses are – it’s not unusual to get a lot more work than we can reasonably do with quality. Over time – and it takes significant time and effort – you need to cultivate the ability to say NO to things you know clearly that you can’t add value to.

A few things that have worked well for me here

1. Give my boss clear visibility on what my team is capable of . So some jobs that come to you , can go to your team instead without the boss thinking you are delegating mindlessly

2. Do an extraordinary job of A level problems so that you accumulate goodwill that can be used for when you say NO

3. Have absolute mastery over routine blocking and tackling so that it does not appear that you are spending a lot of non value adding time . Use delegation , automation, default values etc to your advantage

4. When unforeseen priority comes up – give a quick heads up to the boss on what you are reprioritizing. This gives a chance for the boss to rearrange it for you and have clear expectations on the trade off.

What do you do with all the extra capacity you hopefully created ?

1. Spend it on making more A problems converted to B problems and eventually C problems

2. Sleep more . Take your significant other out for something fun . Go for a walk with your puppy . Meet people . Unplug from the digital world. Give your brain a break

3. Learn something new . Teach something you know

4. When you are ready – and only then, take on the next A level problem new into your plate !

Parting shot

Even with all the best strategies and intentions, not every day and week will feel the same about having time. So you need to be ready for the unknowns life throws at you. But if 80% of the time you have a structure to solve the problems – you hopefully have enough capacity left in your brain to tackle the 20% that comes from left field .

Reflections


I woke up early on Saturday – and sat with a cup of coffee in our backyard, and saw this beautiful reflection. Of course I had to take a photo 🙂

Friday was an incredibly busy day. I had to wake up at 4AM EST in NY to catch a flight home. I hadn’t slept much the night before due to some logistics issues getting back from US Open to my hotel . And I had some work to finish in the plane – so couldn’t sleep there either. US Open itself of course was great (thanks IBM for the great seats)  – and I won’t forget how authoritatively Serena Williams won the semifinal.

By the time my work day finished – it was already 7PM. I spent rest of my evening catching up on photos, videos and stories from the German Shepherd “world championship” that just kicked off in Germany . I have been meaning to go to that dog show for a decade now and haven’t found the time – which of course is a lousy excuse 🙂

So there I was – sitting with both my feet in water – watching the lovely reflection, and clicking photos. Outside vacation time, I don’t generally find myself reflecting all that much.

My big goal in life when I got out of college was to be able to live in a house that had a pool. There I lucked out – living in AZ, having a pool is not a luxury like it was in India when I grew up. My daughter , our dogs, and I enjoyed being in the pool a lot over the years. The last two years however – none of us had really jumped in often . Kiddo and the dogs were all in the house sleeping – so I left the coffee and the phone on the patio table and jumped right in and swam a few laps . Loved it – and my mood improved a few orders of magnitude 🙂

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I have a dear friend who owns an amazing collection of guitars, and he tells me that most weekends he watches the guitars in their fancy cases while listening to Clapton. He does not get around to playing himself. We live in a golf course community, and yet I have hit the greens at best twice in two years. We both make fun of each other every time we catchup – but neither of us have gotten better at doing what we promise each other. But there is always tomorrow to take care of that, right ? 🙂

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Which of course led me to think about what else I wanted to achieve in life . Next goal I had was traveling frequently in planes and staying in good hotels and eating at great restaurants . Thanks to becoming a consultant, I have done millions of miles of air travel and thousands of nights at hotels around the world. The truth is that I stopped enjoying it a while ago – at some point I just learned to do it on autopilot and learned to not let it get on my nerves too much. A lot of people I know want to travel when they retire – I want to travel as little as possible. All the miles I have will come handy to fly to watch cricket matches and dog shows 🙂

Two things always worry me about retirement . 1. My dad was pretty miserable after retirement – his work was a big part of his identity, and stopping one day was not a pleasant experience for him . I don’t think he is over it even today, and I have a strong feeling it will be worse for me when it is my turn 2. Like everyone else  I know, I too worry whether I can ever afford to retire in purely financial terms.

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After I got out of the pool and had a shower – I sat down with another cup of coffee to refresh all the “assets and liabilities” to see if I can ever retire. I found that I am still nowhere close to being able to retire despite the magic of compounding  – but it strangely gave me great pleasure to know exactly why that is, in quantitative terms. And it forced me to take some decisions on personal finance that I had put on the tail end of my to-do list . I could not help but smile – I have told my clients a million times that they will have a whole new perspective on their business if they clean up their data and looked at the total picture it shows. I think I need to hire a consultant too . On second thoughts – there is a high chance that it was the excess coffee that helped bring the clarity more than the data 🙂

I like to solve big hairy problems on the work front as much as the next person – but I have also come to realize that solving a lot of small problems along the way gets me closer to the big goals than taking one giant swing once in a while. This year, I put that principle to use in losing some weight. No more crash diets etc – I took it slow with small weekly goals. And 8 months into the year, I have lost about 25 lbs. At this rate, I might even get to shape and manage to handle a German shepherd in competition again 🙂

Enough with reflections. Time to get another coffee and drive to home depot. My little vegetable garden needs some work.

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