Supreme Court Coverage: A Lawyer Arguing a Case before the U.S. Supreme Court Has Only Thirty Minutes to Focus Attention on the Nine Justices on the Bench. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)

By Bierbauer, Charles | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Coverage: A Lawyer Arguing a Case before the U.S. Supreme Court Has Only Thirty Minutes to Focus Attention on the Nine Justices on the Bench. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)


Bierbauer, Charles, Social Education


But if the attorney momentarily glances to the left, he or she will spot a dozen or so journalists in the two rows of seats reserved for the press. If it's a high profile case-Bush v. Gore comes to mind-there might be as many as one hundred or more journalists squeezed between and obscured behind the Court's stately columns.

A handful of artists for the television networks furiously sketch the scene on large pads propped up on their laps. The journalists bring no cameras to court, not even tape recorders and certainly not cell phones (see sidebar). One mechanical device-a pneumatic tube used to pump the rulings handed down by the Court to the pressroom below-has long been removed.

When an attorney or a party to the appeal wants to talk with the media after arguments, the path winds out of the courtroom, through the Great Hall, and down the steps to the outside plaza. Only there are the media permitted to set up cameras and microphones for interviews. Some attorneys and their clients are eager for the media attention. Attorneys for the U.S. government never break stride to talk there with the press. And the justices themselves? Forget it!

Covering the U.S. Supreme Court is unlike covering any other institution in Washington, D.C., and I've covered just about all of them. The justices hold no news conferences. Some justices even seek to bar cameras when they make public speeches to organizations away from the Court. It's quite a contrast to the White House, where every public movement of the President is intensely covered by the media, if only because the media fear that they might not be there when something goes wrong. On Capitol Hill, there are 535 members of Congress, most of whom are eager-sometimes too eager-to talk with the press.

How, then, does a journalist cover the Supreme Court?

Covering the Court

There is no shortage of lawyers in the United States. And there is no dearth

of information about the cases that are brought to the Supreme Court. Each case has a legal history-lawsuits, trials, petitions, writs, appeals. It's a research-heavy assignment for journalists.

When I was new to the beat, I asked one justice whether I could call him if I had a question about a case or a ruling. No, he said, and suggested that I call those smart former clerks and law professors. "They'll tell you how I think," the justice said.

That's just what a Supreme Court correspondent does. We read briefs and talk to lawyers. Some of the correspondents covering the Supreme Court are lawyers themselves. Familiarity with the law is, of course, beneficial. Other reporters come to the beat with journalistic skills honed on campaign trails and in government corridors.

In any event, the breadth of cases ranges beyond any individual lawyer's expertise. The Court receives as many as 9,000 appeals during a single court term. The justices actually hear arguments in only about eighty cases a year. The weeding-out process starts with the justices' law clerks. Each justice has three or four clerks, all top graduates of topnotch law schools. The clerks vet the appeal petitions for cases most likely to pose constitutional questions or raise issues where lower courts are in conflict.

Ultimately, the justices themselves decide which cases they will hear. Four out of the nine justices are required to "grant cert." That puts the case on track to be heard by the Court. The bulk of petitions are "denied cert."

In terms of media coverage, nothing upsets the justices more than a headline that says "Supreme Court Upholds ..." when all the Court has done is deny a hearing. That means that the lower court ruling stands, but the Supreme Court has not taken a direct position on the case. The court's shorthand-denying without explanation-clashes with the headline writer's shorthand.

A case may be denied cert because the issue has been decided elsewhere, because it is "not ripe" for consideration, or because the justices know of a similar case with better, more optimal facts in the legal pipeline, which they are waiting for in order to decide all related cases.

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Supreme Court Coverage: A Lawyer Arguing a Case before the U.S. Supreme Court Has Only Thirty Minutes to Focus Attention on the Nine Justices on the Bench. (Cases, Controversy, and the Court)
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