By Chris Adams

The Supreme Court is the crown jewel of the U.S. judiciary system – and in these hyper-politicized times, a great source of stories.

But it’s also just one part of a multi-level court system that can be mined for stories no matter a reporter’s beat.

In a session with NPF’s Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellowship, experts discussed the court system and the wide-ranging list of stories that can come from it.

For covering day-to-day actions of the Supreme Court and other federal courts, two journalists gave an overview of the practical steps journalists need to take.

Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog explains how to cover the Supreme Court.

Amy Howe (at right) is a lawyer and editor of SCOTUSblog, the go-to site for real-time court news and analysis. (As fellow speaker Michael Doyle said: “SCOTUSblog is the greatest invention since C-SPAN.”)

Howe talked about practical steps journalists dropping in on the court for occasional stories need to take before the day of the session, the day of the session, or afterwards. (Her thoughts were also distilled in a blog post and video in 2015, in advance of the court’s term-end high-impact cases.)

Before: Journalists should request day passes, sometimes a few weeks in advance. Howe also explained the different types of briefs filed in advance of arguments, as well as other ways to understand a complicated case in advance of what can be a rapid-fire argument.

During: The day of an argument or expected decision, reporters should get to court very early and be prepared
to watch from a seat with a view partially blocked by a pillar. It helps to listen to audio recordings of other arguments so you can recognize the justices’ voices. And be prepared for old-fashioned note-taking: No recording devices, phones or laptops are allowed in the court.

After: Reporters should sign up for the email list to get transcripts of arguments (they are typically released on Friday of a court week), and then prepare to wait for the decision. The day of a decision, speed is the mandate – both how quickly a reporter can read and understand a decision and how quickly they can file a story.

Doyle, a reporter for the McClatchy Washington Bureau, led reporters through the range of other courts that can be tapped for ongoing stories. As a reporter with regional responsibilities, Doyle uses Washington-based courts to find stories that will appeal to readers in local newspaper markets, and he described his daily and weekly routines to check various courts, including:

  • Military courts, such as the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles cases from personnel based around the globe. The military courts, he said, are full of stories of human drama and are rarely tapped by journalists – meaning an enterprising reporter can often be first to report a story.
  • The Court of Federal Claims, which handles contractual disputes and certain other complaints against federal government actions. He checks it every day, finding something newsworthy maybe once every three weeks. “You can spend three minutes cruising through the Court of Federal Claims and find a story enough times to make it worthwhile,” he said.
  • The Tax Court and Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which sometimes lead to stories, although the decisions tend to be fairly technical.
  • The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which handles high-profile cases that often involve rulemaking and other actions by federal agencies. The court releases decisions on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Beyond the day-to-day case reporting, the Supreme Court has become a political minefield in recent years. Steve Wermiel, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, described how the court’s nomination process has become increasing polarized in recent decades, hyper-charging what has always been a political process.

Of 112 justices in the court’s history, 68 were confirmed by a voice vote of the U.S. Senate. “Can you image that happening today?” Wermiel told fellows. “A ‘voice vote’ would be senators screaming insults at each other.”

Wermiel is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe, as well as a biographer of former Justice William J. Brennan. He put the 2016 nomination of federal Judge Merrick Garland (under Senate consideration at the time of the session) in the context of nominations that were made for reasons of electoral politics, court direction, cronyism or merit. (He puts Garland in the merit category.)

Fellows also heard from John Watson, director of the Journalism Division at the American University School of Communication, who talked about how court decisions have often dictated the daily practice of journalism – and sometimes conflicted with the journalists’ codes of ethics.