The Supreme Court is a Double-Edged Sword: Very Open, but Also Opaque

By Chris Adams

For reporters on the courts beat, information is right there for the taking: decisions, briefs, every filing from both sides in a dispute, the names – and even phone numbers – of the attorneys pushing or defending a lawsuit.

But the courts beat comes with some significant drawbacks, too. Leaks are virtually unheard of. Scoops are impossible to come by, since everybody has access to the same information at the same time. And some days, the stories come at you like a firehose.

“In the time I’ve been covering the court, the web has changed everything,” said Robert Barnes, a Supreme Court reporter with The Washington Post.

On the busy days near the end of its annual term, typically in June, the Supreme Court might release several significant decisions. Reporters need to be prepped on all the potential cases that might come out on those decision days – and then quickly push out stories on whichever decisions are announced.

In this real-time world, reporters also need to be prepared to write different versions of the story, depending on the court’s ruling. Barnes (bio and stories, Twitter) told of one significant court case: “I had three versions of the story written and three alerts written. I had a web producer sitting next to me. And when the decision was announced, I said, ‘That one – push that button!’ ”

In sessions with Paul Miller fellows, Barnes, Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog and Zoe Tillman of BuzzFeed News gave tips on covering and getting up to speed on the judicial system, from the Supremes on down.

Tillman (stories, Twitter) detailed the potential President Donald Trump has to revamp the judiciary. As of May 2018, Trump has installed 32 new federal judges and has the potential – because of 148 current vacancies and 32 expected ones – to fill about 180 more. Combined, that’s about a quarter of active judgeships across the federal judiciary. (She covered the issue for BuzzFeed here.)

“This administration has the potential to pretty dramatically change the judiciary in ways the Obama administration did not and could not,” she said. “The administration is moving pretty quickly on judges.”

Howe detailed ways reporters can get information from the court, and she gave practical tips for getting credentials and preparing for decision days. (Those tips are also detailed here and here.)

Among the practical tips: Journalists should request day passes, sometimes a few weeks in advance, if they are going to cover a specific case at the court. Once there, expect to be boxed into a seat in which you might not even be able to see the justices – so you should listen to audio recordings of other arguments so you can recognize the justices’ voices. Finally, be prepared for old-fashioned note-taking: No recording devices, phones or laptops are allowed in the court.

“You’re kind of stepping back into the 19th century, with your pen and steno pad,” she said. “You don’t go in with your Apple watch – they’ll make you take it off.”

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