Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Media

By Kirtley, Jane E. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Media


Kirtley, Jane E., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


* Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Media. Richard Davis. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 241 pp. $28.99 pbk.

The title of this book - Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Media - is something of a misnomer. Although it provides some insight into the relationship between the justices and the reporters who cover the high court, the real focus of the book is an historical analysis of how the Supreme Court has developed a public relations strategy to ensure public support of both rulings and the institution itself.

Although it is not surprising that, as a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, author Richard Davis would write a book that views the justices as fundamentally political (though not necessarily partisan) animals, readers who are searching for a detailed account of how members of the Court interact with the working press will most likely be disappointed.

Much of the book describes how, from the earliest days, the justices strategically utilized the media to consolidate the authority of the Court. At the turn of the nineteenth century, in the face of bitter criticism from Republican newspapers, some justices urged the prosecution of those editors under the 1798 Sedition Act. But Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist-appointee, shrewdly manipulated his colleagues into adopting a policy of issuing primarily per curiam (unsigned) opinions, helping to create an impression that the Court was both unanimous and nonpartisan. Many sitting justices, including Marshall himself, chose to counter their detractors by writing essays using pseudonyms, at the same time protesting disingenuously that, as judges, they could not publicly defend themselves.

Today, of course, it would probably be considered scandalous if a justice wrote an anonymous blog about cases being considered by the high court. Tradition and conventional wisdom say that the justices, unlike elected officials, must keep themselves insulated from public opinion and let their opinions speak for themselves. But as Davis' book demonstrates, authoring books, essays, and speeches that provide insight into a justice's thinking has long been accepted practice. And the justices do not necessarily limit themselves to conventional venues. William O. Douglas, a champion of the First Amendment, wrote articles that appeared in Playboy, and one of his books was serialized in the erotic magazine Evergreen - a decision that got him into hot water later, when then-House minority leader Gerald Ford mounted an unsuccessful effort to impeach him, claiming that Douglas was unfit to serve on the Court because he wrote for "a pornographic magazine." More recently, controversial Justice Clarence Thomas' predilection for choosing primarily conservative authences for his public presentations is, according to Davis, designed to both rehabilitate and control his image.

Despite protestations that they seldom consume the media, Davis documents many justices' keen interest in the news media, some maintaining extensive clip files of news coverage. …

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