Whether it’s an old Chinese proverb, a variation on a Yiddish curse, or an idea first popularized in Aesop’s Fables, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” remains solid advice today.

It’s an especially helpful warning for politicians and policymakers. Those six words should sound an alarm for anyone considering radical changes to long-standing rules and practices.

A recent example of the phrase’s ongoing relevance involves recusals of state Supreme Court justices considering high-profile cases.

All seven members of North Carolina’s highest court took part Thursday in the latest oral arguments in a 30-year legal battle over education funding. Most observers call the case Leandro.

Two Supreme Court justices participated despite requests that they recuse themselves. Plaintiffs sought Justice Phil Berger Jr.’s recusal because his father is involved in the dispute as the state Senate’s leader.

The elder Berger and his state House counterpart called for the recusal of Justice Anita Earls. She once represented a party in the case while working as a left-of-center activist lawyer.

Earls and the younger Berger took different paths in addressing the recusal requests. Earls rejected the idea herself, issuing a 13-page order explaining her decision. Berger, “erring on the side of prudence,” submitted the recusal decision to the full court. His colleagues voted, 4-2, to support him taking part in Leandro deliberations.

Only Earls and Justice Allison Riggs, the court’s two Democrats, dissented from the decision about Berger’s recusal.

Here’s where the “be careful what you wish for” adage enters the picture.

Earls was among a group of Democratic justices in 2021 who considered taking recusal decisions out of individual justices’ hands. Had they followed through, Earls would not have been able to make her own decision this year about Leandro. With no vote of her own, her participation would have depended on a ruling from a court led by five Republican colleagues.

The state Supreme Court looked much different in September 2021, when justices considered chucking 200-year-old recusal rules. Democrats, who had held a 6-1 majority as recently as December 2020, clung to a 4-3 margin as they prepared to address a case pitting left-of-center activist groups against Republican legislative leaders.

The dispute involved two amendments voters had added to the North Carolina Constitution in 2018. One guaranteed that the state would require photo identification from voters in future elections. The second lowered an existing cap on state income tax rates.

A trial judge had accepted critics’ novel legal argument that a General Assembly elected with gerrymandered districts lacked the authority to place the two challenged constitutional amendments on the ballot. The high court faced the task of determining whether the trial court had made an appropriate decision.

Democratic justices had enough votes to decide the case in a partisan split. But some appeared willing to go further. They questioned whether either of the court’s newest justices, both Republicans elected in 2020, should take part in the case.

The objection to Berger involved his family relationship with the state Senate leader. Fellow Republican Justice Tamara Barringer faced opposition because she had served in the Senate when lawmakers voted to place the amendments on North Carolina’s ballot.

The prospect of instituting forced recusals provoked a backlash. Such a decision “would impair the rights of voters and compromise the constitutionally mandated selection of Justices by statewide election,” according to a legal brief from the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

“The Court should begin by scrutinizing the impact that allowing this motion would have on the public’s perception of its independence, integrity, and impartiality,” argued three former state Supreme Court justices, all Republicans. “Adopting a policy that allows a certain number of justices to require the involuntary recusal of one or more of their colleagues in this case threatens to upend these core principles.”

By the end of 2021, the involuntary recusal idea had died. The court issued an order two days before Christmas with no dissents. It spelled out each justice’s right to decide a recusal request unilaterally. The order also offered justices the option to submit recusal decisions to their colleagues.

Earls and Berger addressed Leandro recusals this year under the terms of the 2021 court order. Both had a chance to listen to last week’s arguments. Both will cast votes to decide the case’s outcome.

It’s not clear that the Republican-led court would have voted to disqualify Earls from hearing the Leandro case. But that option would have been on the table if Democratic justices had rewritten recusal rules just a few years ago.

The episode reminds all of us to be careful what we wish for.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.