Monday, June 1, 2009; 10:50 AM
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 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, 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.