Lithwick Discusses Covering the Supreme Court

October 21, 2008

It's not easy to chaperone a revered, 200-year-old institution out of the 18th century and into the 24-hour news cycle.

Dahlia Lithwick

However, that's just what Slate Senior Editor Dahlia Lithwick and her fellow members of the U.S. Supreme Court press corps are attempting to do. Lithwick visited the Law School on Oct. 15 as the first speaker in the new Outside the Box Lunch series, which features attorneys who have used their law degrees to pursue nontraditional careers.

Lithwick, a Charlottesville resident, practiced law for two years before she began covering the Supreme Court for Slate. Now, 10 years later, she's part of a new era of journalism in which news blurs with blogs and reporters don't have the luxury of writing articles for the next morning's newspaper.

"Supreme Court coverage for about 200 years was exactly the same and I think in a very, very short amount of time, it's seen a lot of very dramatic changes," Lithwick said. "I think it's creating some real pressure on the court, on the justices themselves, and an enormous amount of pressure on those of us who report on the court. I think we're just in this moment where we're really trying to figure out how to cover this institution that, unlike almost any other political institution in the country, is still very closed off, very insular, very private, very revered, and very respected, but also very mystified, probably dangerously so."

Bloggers are among those who are denied entrance to cover the Supreme Court, even if it's a knowledgeable legal professor with a blog that attracts hundreds of thousands of readers. And Lithwick is still the only online reporter who is allowed in the court.

In the 10 years she's been covering the Supreme Court, Lithwick said the news cycle has significantly changed for her colleagues. While print reporters used to have the leisure of filing a story for the next morning's newspaper, they are now also part of the race to post information on the Internet as quickly as possible.

"There are a lot of problems with that, including that we make mistakes. We make a lot more mistakes than we used to," she said. "The court has met us halfway on that by agreeing last year, for the first time, to release transcripts on the same day as oral argument — I think at some point it dawned on Chief Justice [John] Roberts that it would make our jobs a lot easier but also be better for the court if we, in fact, reported correctly on what had happened at oral argument."

Lithwick said she also believes the Supreme Court has made a mistake in selectively choosing to release same-day audio recordings from only a few momentous cases each year. By only releasing audio from "important" cases, Lithwick said the court is, in some ways, misrepresenting itself to the American people.

"It's deranged because the cases they inevitably decide should be audio cast are partial-birth abortion, affirmative action, guns, the environment. The kinds of cases that make people go bananas," she said. "So, I just think that if the court is going to give audio access, then they need to give audio access to all cases. If you want Americans to hear the court doing the business of the court, bust out some really, really boring cases and have people understand that 95 percent of what the court does is insanely technical and boring. But to have them listen in only on partial-birth abortion - this is not a really good glimpse into the inner workings of the court. I think in some ways the court has used technology in the worst possible way to reach out and make itself understood to the American people."

While the Supreme Court still has a way to go to catch up with modern journalism, Lithwick said reporters themselves are still discovering new ways to cover the court. Among those, she named NPR's Nina Totenberg, who puts a human face on the court by interviewing plaintiffs, and Jeff Rosen, who has gained extraordinary access to conduct extensive interviews with the Supreme Court justices themselves. This is a stark contrast to the Supreme Court reporting in the past, Lithwick said.

"Every single report kind of looked the same. There was this tendency to be very, very reverent about the justices, to sort of depersonalize the court, to talk about it in sort of a vernacular way: 'The great holy ones from the mountain spoke and out of the cloud came a thunder clap,'" she said. "I think there was just this tendency to really, really mystify what the court did."

Lithwick commended the justices for granting the media access it never had before. However, she emphasized that they still need to keep an eye on what is appropriate, saying Clarence Thomas' memoir and comments some of the justices have made during interviews cross the line from humanizing the court to trivializing the court.

"I think it makes it very, very hard to hold the court in the same esteem when they're quite that voluble about their personal opinions and predilections. It's a very hard line and I'm not sure that the justices always walk it," she said. "I was one of the people who, for years now, said 'No, we need to get to know these people as people. We need to understand that they're humans and that they're not holy, oracular creatures.' And yet, ironically, as we get to know them, we don't like what we see very much. It turns out that maybe we do need a little mystery there and maybe a little sense that they are different from us."

The Outside the Box Lunch series will continue in following months. Former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern will speak in November and Michael E. Leiter, National Counterterrorism Center principal deputy director, is scheduled to speak in February.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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