Lyle Denniston is an 81-year-old retiree with three children and six grandchildren. In his free time, he enjoys sailing. And on Thursday, Denniston expects to tell a quarter-million Americans — including the most devoted court-watchers — whether the health-care law still stands.
Denniston works for SCOTUSBlog, a Web site that, for the past two years, has live-blogged the release of Supreme Court opinions. On a good day, it used to attract 1,500 readers, usually Washington-based lawyers.
As the Supreme Court’s decision on health care has neared, SCOTUSBlog’s traffic has exploded. It hit 70,000 concurrent viewers last Thursday and 100,000 on Monday. On Thursday, when the Supreme Court hands down its health-care decision, SCOTUSBlog expects 250,000 readers.
It’s Denniston’s job to tell them the outcome, and do it quickly. “It’s our number one ambition to be first and beat everybody,” Denniston says.
If there’s anyone who can do it, it’s probably him: Denniston has covered the Supreme Court for five decades. He’s older than all sitting justices (besting the oldest justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by two years). Of the 112 justices who have sat on the bench, Denniston has covered 33 of them — a quarter of all justices who have ever sat on the bench.
Denniston has retired twice from Supreme Court reporting positions. There were retirement parties both times, one of which then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist attended while wearing an Indian-style chief hat.
Both times, he has come back. ”I’m having such a fun time,” he says. “Why would I quit now?”
Denniston was born in 1931 and has wanted to be a Supreme Court reporter for just about as long as he can remember. He got his start as a court reporter when he was 17, a recent high school graduate hired by his hometown paper in Nebraska to cover the local courts.
That was back 1948. Denniston subsequently attended the University of Nebraska, and then moved to the District to pursue a masters’ degree in politics from Georgetown University. In 1953, he began covering the Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal and then moved to the now-defunct Washington Star, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe.
His biggest professional regret, he says, was missing the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade — he had temporarily been pulled off the beat to edit coverage of the Watergate scandal.
“After Mr. Nixon resigned, I went to the editor and I said, ‘Either I get my Supreme Court beat back or I’m quitting,’ ” Denniston says.
He came out of his most recent retirement in 2004 and, at the age of 73, became a blogger for SCOTUSBlog. He is not a fan of technology.
“My wife will tell you I have no patience with computers,” he says. “I throw my hands up at the slightest glitch. It took me a while to learn to use a cellphone.” He tried Twitter last year but did not like it, which is slightly ironic, since many of his online fans, myself included, tried to get #TeamLyle to trend on Twitter during his recent dispatches.
“It sounds like if you get mentioned a number of times, with a hashtag, you end up trending,” Denniston told me. I told him that was accurate.
“Does that get me a cup of coffee?” Denniston asked.
I informed him that it did not, but did bring some Internet fame and glory.
“Oh, okay,” he responded.
Working for SCOTUSBlog, he points out, doesn’t actually feel that technological. He still phones in the results to an editor on the other line. It reminds him of working for the Washington Star, decades ago, when he would pick up the decisions and then phone the newspaper’s “dictation bank.”
“I would get the court opinion, and we had an 11 a.m. deadline,” Denniston says. “I had to pretty much read them what my story was.”
On Thursday, Denniston hopes to have the verdict up on SCOTUSBlog within moments. He will do that by “dashing” from the press room back to his “cubbyhole” of an office. He’ll then hop onto Skype with SCOTUSBlog Managing Editor Amy Howe and start reading the results.
He predicts that things might get a little “pushy” in the Supreme Court press room — where electronics are not allowed — as reporters rush back to their computers to file.
“I can imagine I should have the shoulders of a linebacker by the end of this year,” he says. “I may need them just to get out of the press room.”