Howard Kurtz's Media Notes: Supreme Court Expert Tom Goldstein Doesn't Hold Back
Monday, June 1, 2009
Tom Goldstein -- attorney, blogger, walking sound-bite machine -- was a guest at last week's White House rollout for Sonia Sotomayor, and moments later was holding forth on the lawn for NBC, MSNBC and Bloomberg before heading to CBS and CNN and calling back newspaper reporters from the car.
By the next day, shuttling between studios, Goldstein felt frustrated with the cable debates over the Supreme Court nominee. "They have wing nut-person X who says she's an incredibly liberal ideologue without respect for the law, and in that format you don't have to justify anything. Nobody asks follow-up questions.
"I talked to three reporters from Politico today. If they can find the Supreme Court, it's because it's across the street from the Capitol. It's not their beat, and they're highly open about that."
What makes the brash and balding 38-year-old such a hot media property is Scotusblog.com, the Web site he founded six years ago to obsessively track the high court. At 7:34 a.m. last Tuesday, an hour before news of the nomination leaked, he posted an essay on the likely lines of attack if President Obama picked Sotomayor. Had he guessed wrong, Goldstein says, he would have looked like "the world's biggest idiot. I was out there on a limb."
Three years ago, Goldstein joined the blue-chip Washington firm of Akin Gump, which also agreed to take on Scotusblog and is listed as the site's host. Despite the unorthodox arrangement, Goldstein says his staff, which includes veteran Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston, has complete independence. "Lyle could write that our clients are completely insane and evil and there'd be nothing to stop him," Goldstein says in his 12th-floor office with a sweeping view of the Washington Monument.
Denniston, part of a nine-person staff of lawyers and researchers, likes the arrangement: "Tom leaves me alone in all respects. I have no assignments, no deadlines, no second-guessing."
Goldstein makes some concessions to his profession. He recently moved Akin Gump clients from the blog's list of "Petitions to Watch" at the high court, putting them at the bottom to avoid an appearance of favoritism. And Goldstein says he would stay silent rather than trash a court nominee who was likely to be confirmed. "My ethical role as a lawyer is not to wound my client," he says.
One measure of Goldstein's commitment to Scotusblog, which accepts no advertising: He keeps it afloat with up to $100,000 a year from his own pocket. "He's got some serious pride of ownership," says Goldstein's wife, lawyer Amy Howe, who also blogs at the site. "You've created this institution that people read pretty widely. He is the puppet master." The blog recorded 115,000 hits on the day of Sotomayor's nomination -- more than quadruple its usual traffic.
The blog is "enormously helpful to us," says Akin Gump Chairman Bruce McLean, because lawyers and potential clients see it as "directly connected to the prestige of the firm." The same is true, he says, for Goldstein's media profile. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Chicago Tribune all quoted Goldstein on Sotomayor.
"He's very adept at being first or nearly first in terms of offering a quick take," says Joan Biskupic, Supreme Court reporter for USA Today. "He's got a very good knack for both the law and the needs of journalists on all things legal. He also knows how to distill things that help people understand what the law's about."
A former intern for Nina Totenberg at National Public Radio, Goldstein buttressed his reputation as a soothsayer in 2005 by writing on the morning that George W. Bush picked Harriet Miers that her nomination was doomed. Goldstein is a Democrat, but journalists regard him as an honest broker. He has, for instance, praised Clarence Thomas as an underrated justice.
He has also denounced activists on both sides, writing that "the most extreme interest groups and ideologues . . . rush to caricature the nominee and the opposing viewpoint." Goldstein blames the media in part, saying they carry "bumper sticker messages" from the left and right without "much nuance." Reporters, he adds in an interview, are unlikely to have read more than one Sotomayor opinion, and are trapped by a false balance in which opposing advocates are quoted with little indication of who is distorting the facts.
Based on his instinct, Goldstein's Akin Gump interns started tracking Sotomayor's record last summer, and last week Scotusblog examined 13 of her rulings as an appeals court judge. "What I do is profoundly boring to most people," he says.
A graduate of American University's law school, Goldstein founded a small firm -- soon joined by his wife -- in the third bedroom of their Northwest Washington home. He pursued his goal, to become a Supreme Court practitioner, by cold-calling lawyers in cases that might be headed for high court review. Goldstein was denigrated by more credentialed members of the bar as an overeager ambulance chaser, but the strategy worked: He has argued 21 cases before the Supreme Court. (Goldstein still finances his old firm, which includes his wife and remains at his home, now in Chevy Chase, a few doors down from Chief Justice John Roberts. The firm is an Akin Gump subcontractor.)
White House officials had asked to consult Goldstein on the court vacancy, but by the time he returned from a weekend in Paris, Obama had made his choice. Determined not to miss the action, Goldstein canceled a meeting in Los Angeles with a top producer about a reality series based on his life, the rights to which were bought by Sony Pictures Television. ("They must be smoking crack," Goldstein says.) A poker fanatic who plays with pots as large as $100,000, he also delayed plans to compete in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Goldstein believes Sotomayor will be easily confirmed "unless someone finds a love child." Having declared the nomination battle over on Scotusblog, the media's favorite court pundit may have to return to full-time lawyering, at least until the story heats up again.
Backstage with Obama
Brian Williams, who keeps an autographed photo of Warren Burger's Supreme Court on his office wall, was struck by what happened when he asked President Obama about the Sonia Sotomayor nomination.
"After I'd asked a cluster of questions, he went back," the NBC anchor says. "He hadn't exhausted the topic. They are clearly angry at some of the comments and coverage."
The interview, which made news when an excerpt was aired, is part of a prime-time series -- "Inside the Obama White House," airing tomorrow and Wednesday -- that so far has produced 150 hours of tape. A tired-sounding Williams, who covered the Clinton White House and was an intern in the Carter White House, was delighted at the level of access, which continues with more interviews tomorrow.
"There's stuff we've never seen of how the White House operates," he says. "We were pretty stunned at how much we were able to record and how natural events seemed to be."
He recalls "walking through the West Wing and Secretary Clinton drops by to see the president. To be in the hallway when the president walks by with a handful of M&Ms, popping them in his mouth as he goes to visit his chief of staff -- it was unbelievable. I don't think the expression 'took up residence' is hyperbolic." He also spent time with Michelle Obama and went out for burgers with the president.
Such specials are part of a 40-year NBC tradition, but Williams had to make the sale, a lobbying effort that began before the election. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel allowed the network to record some senior staff meetings but, says Williams, "Rahm closed the door in front of our crew eight times."
While such behind-the-scenes programs tend to be positive, Williams hopes to highlight the sacrifice involved in the demanding jobs so viewers "will see White House aides as people. There's emotion in it, pathos, personality."