Courting Change

Rethinking the Supreme Court press corps for a new era.

The U.S. Supreme Court

Earlier this week, my colleague Jack Shafer argued that one of the great benefits of newsroom buyouts is that they afford opportunities for new voices and forms in media otherwise resistant to change. Specifically, Shafer pointed to the opportunity that awaits the New York Times’ Adam Liptak, who, come October, will inherit the Supreme Court beat from its 30-year veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Linda Greenhouse. The “young whippersnapper,” writes Shafer, will have the chance to answer some (or all) of these great, looming questions about court coverage:

In the Web era, is the best use of the Timescolumn inches the traditional day-after-oral-arguments story and the day-after-decisions dispatches? Is there a more creative way to report on the court? Should Liptak cover the court with more argument and greater point of view, the way he covers the law in his current Sidebar column? Whether dug-in journalists are excellent or mediocre, their departures give publications the opportunity to reinvent themselves.

In what’s either a piece of happy serendipity or an indication that Supreme Court correspondents really need to see other people, I spent a large part of this week in some discussions on the very same subject—one of which happened alongside the earlier-referenced whippersnapper himself. Reflections about the change in Supreme Court press coverage are particularly apt now, not just because of the changing of the guard at the Times,but because while changes at the court itself happen glacially, changes in technology and the media have made covering the court an entirely different proposition today than it was even five years ago. Never one to decline a challenge from Jack Shafer, I heartily agree that this is a wonderful beat in need of some tweaking. And it’s not just incumbent upon the whippersnapper to re-imagine the job. Seems to me we are, all of us, doing this already, in some rather interesting ways, and our readers may have some thoughts on the matter, too.

What follow are some of my own tentative thoughts about how coverage of the court has changed in a very short time and how we can do a better job prying open the big, white marble box on Maryland Avenue to better benefit our readers:

Speed. Not so very long ago, most Supreme Court reporters ambled out of oral arguments, enjoyed a light snack and a beverage, and then filed their stories for publication in the next morning’s paper. Today, many of my colleagues file early-afternoon versions of their pieces online with a more in-depth treatment to follow that evening. Not so very long ago, we frantically scribbled notes about the day’s proceedings in shorthand and hoped we weren’t making too many mistakes. Some of us (er, me) wildly e-mailed Tony Mauro as deadline approached to check quotes. Today, official transcripts of oral argument appear online at the court’s Web site around the same time the first Web stories are posted. That means interested consumers of Supreme Court news can actually read about the proceedings in their entirety just hours after they end (and sometimes hours before we have filed). Ditto for opinions that now post at the court’s official Web site before most of us have had time to read even the head notes. In fact, at some point last summer it occurred to me that I could probably cover the massive decision dump of late June faster between the SCOTUSblog live blog and posted opinions than from the court’s own chambers. Yes, that’s the sound of Einstein’s space-time brain exploding.

Experts.Not so very long ago, if we needed a quote about a Supreme Court case, we could just dial some helpful constitutional law professor in his Ivy League office and weave his legal wisdom into our pieces. Today, huge numbers of our leading legal thinkers are just too busy blogging the cases themselves to return our calls. This goes beyond citizen journalism. This is extreme, hard-core expert journalism. Doug Berman, Rick Hasen, and myriad other subject-matter experts can—transcript in hand—thus “cover” oral argument from Ohio, California, or the space shuttle about as quickly as we can. This is a good thing. But it may leave the traditional beat reporter to wonder how to add value, beyond just transcribing oral argument and interpreting opinions. Between same-day transcripts, Slate’snew “Convictions” blog, and the Volokh Conspiracy,I could be looking for work come September.

• Real. Live. Justices.The nine justices used to mostly hang out in chambers, teach classes in Italy, and hide from the public. Not anymore. Eight of the nine sitting justices cooperated with Jan Crawford Greenburg and/or Jeff Toobin for their best-selling court books last year. Most of the nine have been burning up the radio waves and podcasts and luring the TV cameras into their chambers at a pretty fair clip. And in the case of Clarence Thomas, at least, they’ve also been sharing personal truths and existential doubts in hardcover form. Now, Antonin Scalia is getting ready for his close-up. David Souter (aka the “Silver Fox”) remains in his secret underground bunker eating apple cores. This new judicial openness has offered an unprecedented opportunity for journalists like Greenburg and USA Today’s Joan Biskupic to introduce the sitting justices to the American public, with long reported pieces on personality and ideology and the relationships between jurists and how they affect the law.

New technologies.Every once in a while, according to some Euclidian geometric formula too complicated for the average mortal, the justices will agree to release same-day audio recordings of oral argument. I still think the whole idea is wrongheaded and that they should release same-day audio for every case. Starting yesterday. But it seems to me the press corps has a rich and as yet mostly untapped opportunity to bring these voices alive, at least on the days in which they are there for the listening. We’ve experimented with sound and images here at Slate,just as we’ve experimented with the idea of covering the big decisions of late June in dialogue—as opposed to monologue—form. But I can’t help but think there’s more to be done with both audio and transcripts—I just don’t know what it is yet.

Opinion! While most of the Supreme Court press corps still strives mightily to report both oral argument and the decisions with perfect neutrality, some have increasingly incorporated a little point of view into their diet. Longtime print veteran Lyle Denniston blogs for SCOTUSblog, and fellow print vet Greenburg blogs for ABC. Liptak, whose brilliant Sidebarcolumn is all the better for his opinions and point of view, may, by necessity, light the way toward some new kind of objective-expert-opinion Supreme Court coverage that isn’t nearly as horrifying as it may sound. It always struck me as doubly peculiar that the folks with the most expertise about the court were the ones forced to keep their views to themselves.

Reclaim the Constitution.Here’s the way I figure it: If all the con-law professors can blog the court, we in the Supreme Court press corps might want to moonlight a little in blogging the Constitution. The legal academy is in the midst of a decadeslong, fascinating public debate about methods and styles of constitutional interpretation. It’s something about which the public is curious and, I suspect, would love to know more. One of the ways in which we might add value is by helping the American public follow along in the originalism/active liberty/strict construction/minimalism cha-cha.

OK, court-o-philes. Those are some of my ideas. How about yours? Should Supreme Court reporters be writing more about the justices as people or less? Including more of their own points of view or not? Blogging? Canoodling with clerks? Kicking it with the audio? Send mail to Dahlia.lithwick@hotmail.com. I reserve the right to quote your insights unless you tell me otherwise.