Lyle Denniston is an 81-year-old retiree with six grandchildren, two sailboats and one ambitious goal: breaking the news of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the health-care law, possibly to the president himself.
Denniston is a reporter for SCOTUSblog, a small Web site dedicated to covering the Supreme Court. He regularly live-blogs the release of Supreme Court opinions for a following of about 1,500 lawyers, maybe 3,000 on a good day.
That all began to change last week. As the court’s decision on health care neared, traffic boomed. The Web site’s live blog on opinions had 70,000 readers last Thursday and 100,000 on Monday.
“Our number one ambition is to beat everybody,” Denniston said. “It’s a source of pride. I may need to get some sharper elbows to make sure we get it first.”
On Thursday, the day the Supreme Court is expected to hand down its health-care decision, SCOTUSblog is preparing for as many as 250,000 readers. Even the White House is depending on the Web site to deliver the news to the president.
“We turn on televisions and radios and computers and watch SCOTUSblog,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing Wednesday. “We all will await the decision and learn of it at the same time that you do.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act could be among its most consequential, because the justices could strike down a major federal law for the first time since the 1930s. The decision is likely to have a significant impact on both the presidential election and the U.S. health-care system.
The Supreme Court does not make breaking news of its decisions easy. Public information officers hand out paper copies of each opinion in a room where electronics are not allowed. Reporters then dash to computers or telephones to broadcast the results.
In a case as complex as the one involving the health-care law — in which four separate legal issues are at stake — deciphering the opinion can take time. SCOTUSblog has four lawyers on hand for that task, and they will be checking over all live blog posts.
“The TV people out front literally won’t have it for about two minutes,” SCOTUSblog publisher and co-founder Tom Goldstein said. “After they hand it to Lyle, I expect 25 seconds after that, we’ll have it on the live blog. I would be surprised if the Associated Press can beat us.”
SCOTUSblog has proved itself up to the task. The site has become a mainstay for Washington reporters, legislators and lobbyists anxiously awaiting a verdict.
“Decision by #scotus tomorrow likely at 10:15,” Jeffrey Toobin, a longtime Supreme Court reporter, tweeted Wednesday. His advice: “Watch @SCOTUSblog.”
SCOTUSblog started in 2002 and is run by Goldstein’s law firm, Goldstein & Russell. The site has traditionally been a place where lawyers and scholars can track the many Supreme Court decisions that do not make the front page. As recently as 2010, it had a $250,000 budget and three staff members.
The Supreme Court does not recognize SCOTUSblog as a news outlet, given that it has no print edition, and Denniston’s credentials are from a Boston-area radio station.
For weeks, Goldstein has planned for the day of the health-care decision. The site’s live blog, normally a two-person operation, will have seven staff members “in position” by 8:15 a.m., two hours before the ruling is expected to come down.
A third-party technology vendor has warned that the site may be a likely target for hackers, given its high traffic, and will be on hand for any such emergencies.
“For two minutes, we’re producing the Olympics,” Goldstein said. “We’re trying to act like it.”
If this is the Olympics, then Denniston is almost certainly the star athlete. “Lyle is still the sun around which all of our coverage orbits,” Goldstein said.
Denniston has covered the Supreme Court for nearly six decades; he previously worked at newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe. He joined SCOTUSblog in 2004 as a blogger who, at 73, was older than most of the sitting justices.
“I’m probably the least technologically sophisticated blogger you’ll ever meet,” he said. “My wife will tell you I have no patience with computers.”
Still, it’s Denniston who makes SCOTUSblog work. Once he has a physical copy of the health-care opinion, he will dash down the hall to his “cubby hole,” where his editor will be waiting on the line. He will read her the key elements of the decision, which she will then post on the Web site.
Denniston describes the health-care lawsuit as the “most complex” he has ever seen.
“I made it a point of trying to get well-acquainted with how health care is financed,” he said. “That was the most challenging part of getting ready, understanding how health care gets paid for.”
Denniston has retired twice from Supreme Court reporting jobs, each time receiving a send-off party that some justices would attend. But he can’t stay away.
“I am just having such a great time — why would I quit?” Denniston said. “I’m doing what I think is a great public service. It’s also quite fun. If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it.”