Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2

I meant to say something about Walt Mossberg's session (on Tuesday) on "The Future of the Internet and the Rise of the Cell Phone"--though I acknowledge a slight impediment, having arrived late to find the session packed out and impossible to get into. Sources tell me it was about how devices like the iPhone constitute an entirely new computing platform, and are as momentous a turning point as the PC was in its day.

Well, sure. As a devoted reader of Mossberg's Personal Technology column in the WSJ, I was already familiar with that notion. Like the throngs of listeners overflowing into the hallway, I expect, I never miss his column, even though I cannot remember a single occasion when it told me something I didn't already know. (There must have been some; they just don't spring to mind.) Do not misunderstand me: Mossberg's popularity is entirely deserved. There is something very satisfying about reading an engaging, straightforward, intelligible treatment of familiar facts. It is a rare treat. They should teach that in journalism school.

A disappointment for me on Wednesday was the cancellation of the session on "The Dumbing Down of American Culture: Fact or Fiction?", apparently due to the non-appearance of some of the speakers. I had been looking forward to listening to the always interesting and multi-faceted Joel Achenbach (the putative moderator) navigate that terrain. I was curious to know if anybody would attempt to argue that American culture is not being dumbed down. What might such an argument look like? Next time, I hope. In the meantime, there is Joel's blog.

All the speakers--Sandra Day O'Connor, Judith Kaye, Ted Olson, and Stephen Carter-- showed up for "How Do We Choose Our Judges?" Concern was expressed about the dangers of judicial elections--which 39 states now hold. (As an illustration of the dangers of mixing election money and the courts, Olson recounted the remarkable tale of West Virginia's chief justice, who was pictured vacationing on the French Riviera with a CEO whose company had a case pending before the court.) But the discussion moved quickly to the appointment of Supreme Court judges. Carter would prefer the justices to be less visible. He deplores confirmation hearings and thinks that televising the court (as suggested by Olson, since people who see the court in action usually have a higher opinion of it) would be a disaster. To make them visible is to subject them to political pressure, Carter believes: they should be kept apart from politics, which means apart from the public.

Would making justices less visible make them less political? I don't know that it would. Politics and the court are hard to keep apart. The decisions the justices have to make are often politically freighted, and sometimes politically momentous: it cannot be any other way. Given this, a public confirmation process seems desirable--and so does televising the court. Shrouding the court in secrecy is just too undemocratic. I think you get the right kind of court not through invisibility, but through judicial modesty. It falls to the president to nominate justices inclined to exercise a particular kind of restraint--capable, that is, of deferring to elected politicians when the law's meaning is disputed, and when they (the justices) are themselves closely divided.