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Two related health trends mean that each Supreme Court nomination now has the potential to shape the nation’s highest court for far longer than in the past.

One is that Americans live decades longer than they did when the country was founded. At the same time, medical and public health advances have changed the dominant causes of death from infectious to chronic diseases. Infectious diseases typically kill fast, while chronic ones have a longer course. This shift toward a longer and slower decline, as opposed to more rapid death, means that justices are more able to select the administrations and political environments in which to end their terms — to, in effect, pass the baton.

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