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The Fourth Estate on the Third Branch

On Monday, the District of Columbia bar assembled six leading Supreme Court correspondents to review the recently competed term and discuss one of the more atypical jobs in Washington journalism. The panel consisted of Joan Biskupic of USA Today, Robert Barnes of the Washington Post, Tony Mauro of Legal Times and American Lawyer Media, Mark Sherman of the Associated Press and Stuart Taylor, Jr., of the National Journal and Newsweek. A link to the event is now available here on the C-SPAN web site (Real Player required), and brief recap follows below. (Click here to listen to a previous SCOTUSblog podcast with New York Times correspondent Linda Greenhouse, and here with Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio.)

With little need for anonymous sources and few opportunities to interview the main subjects of their stories, Supreme Court reporters differ from much of the Beltway press corps. “So much of [the job] is reading,” said Barnes, who just completed his first term covering the Court, adding he now knows why Biskupic calls the job “reporting by highlighter.” Panelists explained that reporters must submit detailed interview requests through the public affairs office to officially interview the Justices. With the exception of Justice Souter, all Justices generally are willing to speak to the media – though not always on the record, panelists said. The limited access to the Justices is “part of the reason people stay on the beat a long time,” Barnes said. “It takes a long time to get to know these people.”

While Court opinions can take hours or days to digest, numerous panel members said the 24-hour news cycle requires them to meet increasingly fast deadlines. On the Court’s final day, Barnes said he filed a web version of the story by 12 pm and had to answer reader questions about the school assignment case on at 3 pm. Like our own Lyle Denniston, the AP’s Sherman fires off news alerts from the press room as the Court issues its decisions, relying on the audio feed from the chamber and written opinions distributed only after the Justices begin to read from the bench. He said he refines the original story throughout the day, with the number of updates depending on the importance of the case. After the Court’s decision in the school assignment case, Sherman said he filed seven or eight updates in the first hour.

None of the panelists work for broadcast outlets, but all appeared to support the idea of televising oral arguments. Mauro said he had once believed Justice Alito – who supported the use of cameras in the Third Circuit – to represent “a shining ray of hope” for a new policy on cameras in the chamber. Now, though, he fears Justice Alito’s colleagues have persuaded him to oppose the idea. Biskupic said she found “unusual” an argument against televised coverage that Justice Kennedy made in February, when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee their presence might lead to the Justices to suspect one another of playing for the cameras. Taylor recounted a conversation with Thurgood Marshall in 1987, though, that suggests Kennedy was not the first Justice to harbor such concerns. According to Taylor, “[Marshall] said, ‘You bring in cameras and we’d all be acting, just like those Senators did in the Bork hearing.’”

In response to a question from the audience, numerous panelists said that despite recent 5-4 rulings on controversial social questions, the Court would not likely play a large role in the 2008 presidential elections. Taylor said outcries among liberals notwithstanding, most of the country opposes late term abortions and school assignment plans that take race into account. After the primaries, “I don’t think the Democratic presidential candidate is going to get a whole lot of mileage out of attacking the Supreme Court, and I’d be surprised if they try.” Added Mauro: “Since 1980, there have been seven presidential elections, and I’ve written a story every time about the importance of the Supreme Court as an issue in the presidential election. I’ve been about as successful on that point as I have been on cameras in the Court.”