A little wrinkle in the long-running quest of the renowned SCOTUSblog to secure credentials for its coverage of the Supreme Court: Today SCOTUSblog correspondent Amy Howe sat in the court’s press section by virtue of a day pass that the court has begun issuing to the blog. It’s the second such pass that SCOTUSblog has used, according to Publisher Tom Goldstein — with the first instance being Monday’s oral arguments on Arizona’s approach to redistricting.
“They have really tried to accommodate us,” says SCOTUSblog’s Goldstein. “They’re not trying to get in our way.”
SCOTUSblog has expended a grueling effort for credentials in the Supreme Court chamber, a process complicated by Goldstein himself: He’s both the publisher of the blog as well as a frequent Supreme Court practitioner as a partner in Goldstein & Russell, P.C. Just last month, the high court issued a new policy on press credentials that officially stiff-arms SCOTUSblog on getting its own credential but should make room for its veteran correspondent, Lyle Denniston, to continue covering proceedings with what’s known as a “hard pass.”
Denniston, a 57-year veteran of high court reporting, has long held his hard pass pursuant to his association with Boston NPR station WBUR. He’s now applying for a new pass under the auspices of his independent blog, “Lyle Denniston Law News.”
Here’s how the workaround operates: Denniston’s posts appear first on his eponymous blog, unedited. Then SCOTUSblog staff picks them up, edits them and posts a version on SCOTUSblog. Not all of the content on Denniston’s blog makes this migration. The arrangement allows the court to ensure that Denniston is acting as an independent journalist for his own outlet and not as an agent of Goldstein’s firm through SCOTUSblog, says Goldstein.
The day passes also help. Today, SCOTUSblog correspondent Howe used it to take in the entire oral argument in King v. Burwell, the much-watched case that threatens federal subsidies in 30-odd states that declined to set up their own health-care exchanges. Howe teamed up with a well-coordinated SCOTUSblog team, as Denniston also reported from the press section and two other SCOTUSbloggers took in the proceedings via piped-in audio in the Supreme Court’s lawyers’ lounge.
These four SCOTUSblog correspondents exited their respective rooms at set intervals: one after one-third of the oral argument was complete, another after two-thirds and the final two reporters at the conclusion of the session. Such platooning has grown in popularity among big Supreme Court-covering organizations because of the court’s rules: Electronic devices are prohibited in the courtroom and you can’t always get back in once you’ve left. “When the press section is filled to capacity as it was today (116 reporters) and seats are assigned, it is simply too crowded for reporters to come and go without causing significant disruption in the courtroom,” says court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg in an e-mail.
“You’re in this no-go zone where you’re hearing news and you can’t do anything about it unless you leave and if you leave, you can’t come back,” says Richard Wolf, who has been covering the Supreme Court for USA Today over the past three years.
The rules explain why the initial news reports from an oral argument lack punch — or at least the long, discursive and brilliant quotes from the justices. “If you were trying to transcribe it, you would need classical shorthand skills,” says Goldstein. The USA Today article by Wolf and Brad Heath contained the following paragraph, which teases at the limits of what a reporter can take down by hand in a fast-paced oral argument:
“We’re going to have the death spiral that this system was created to avoid,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “Tell me how that is not coercive in an unconstitutional way.”
Within a couple hours of the arguments’ conclusion, the court posted the transcript, enabling news outlets to replenish their pieces with more complete quotes. “If you think you have the quote 99 percent right, what you can do is use it and then an hour later change the word that was wrong,” says Wolf. “More likely, you just avoid the quote, which is why you have these dry stories for a couple of hours.”
There was a time, says Goldstein, when he live-blogged proceedings from the lawyer’s lounge. But after he did that, the court banned electronic devices from the area, he says. Via Arberg, this is the sign on the lounge: “Once a Bar Member exits the Lawyers’ Lounge during a Court session, the Member will not be permitted to re-enter. No electronic devices of any kind allowed in the Courtroom or Lawyers’ Lounge regardless of whether they are on or off. Please check all electronic devices in lockers located at the front of the building.”
Fragmentary quotes, furiously scribbling reporters, platooning strategies, cat-and-mouse games between media types and court administration: The risible arrangements required to cover oral arguments at the Supreme Court stand as a petty democratic embarrassment. Not only can’t the public get the oral arguments in real time on television or the Internet — a modern prerequisite for open government — but also the intermediaries have to work with cramped wrists. “There’s no good reason for not giving Americans the chance to see the process and live the process as closely as possible,” says Goldstein.