DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Covering the Supreme Court

Of all the beats that reporters cover, few are as challenging as the Supreme Court. First, there are the legal complexities of the cases that reach the court. Then there is the fact that discussions are held behind closed doors and decisions are privately written in chambers. Finally, there is the long-standing reluctance of the 9 justices to explain their actions or speak about court matters in public.

"They (the justices) don't need the press the way other public figures do," says Jess Bravin, the Supreme Court correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Recently, Bravin joined Maria Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal, and Garret Epps, constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic Online for a discussion at the National Archives about covering the highest court in America.

The panel discussion, moderated by Bill Grueskin, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and an executive editor at Bloomberg News, was entitled Courtroom Drama: Covering the Supreme Court.

"The beat is different in that there is so little contact," Coyle said. "The justices are reluctant to grant interviews or release any personal information. You have to go to the oral arguments and that is where you are going to learn about them."

"The issues are difficult, they are complicated, but they are interesting," she added. "And if you look beyond the legal question, there is someone who has a problem."

Given the secrecy surrounding the court, it takes a long time to develop credibility and acquire sources, all 3 reporters agreed. "If you stay at the court long enough, you begin to see certain patterns. There is a lot of value to staying with it for years to see what is happening," Coyle said.

Of course, just like it has for journalists everywhere, the advent of the internet, social media, and the 24/7 news cycle has changed the way reporters cover the Supreme Court.

"It's made deadline pressure intense," says Coyle. "We used to have time to develop and write in-depth." Now she says, after a day at court, she has to check for soundbite selections from any rulings for fellow broadcasters to use, compose blog entries and tweets, analyze the happenings, write a brief summary and then her story, and then appear live on TV that night to explain cases to viewers.

Epps says the "voracious appetite for content" works in his favor since he doesn't do deadline reporting, but instead writes pieces examining constitutional issues. He gave an example of just how difficult it is to get a non-case story from the court. He wanted to write a feature about the court's legal library, but was told "no employee of the library will talk to you."

The current court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has been criticized for issuing rulings strictly along party lines. There are 5 Republican appointees and 4 Democratic appointees on the bench.

"We use the liberal and conservative shorthand, but the justices are all intellectual and have very deeply thought out positions on the issues," Bravin said. "That being said, there is often remarkably little diversity in their lineups."

"It looks very political," Coyle said. "We've had a real run of culture war issues. All the justices will say they never practice politics, but they are the sum of their lives and their experiences."

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