Supreme Court journalists: Behind the scenes with reporters and justices.

It Is Awesome to Cover the Supreme Court

It Is Awesome to Cover the Supreme Court

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May 8 2015 9:18 AM
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Me & Ruth & Sonia & Antonin

What it’s really like to cover the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court justices
The Supreme Court justices’ nervous fidgets will never be witnessed by most Americans.

Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Although you wouldn’t guess it from audio recordings of oral arguments, the justices of the Supreme Court get antsy. Justice Stephen Breyer swivels his balding pate, raises his eyebrows, whispers to his neighbors. Justice Elena Kagan leans forward, cocks her head, purses her lips. Justice Anthony Kennedy sits forward anxiously and hunches his shoulders. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, deep into his apparent vow of silence, rocks back and forth in his chair, tilting his head back, restlessly zoning out.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.

The justices’ nervous fidgets—I like to think of them as tells—will never be witnessed by most Americans. There are no cameras in the courtroom, which fits only 400 people, and often fewer than 100 of them are public spectators. Photography is strictly forbidden; the last clear picture of the court in session was taken in 1937. (Today, protesters occasionally smuggle in tiny cameras to produce a few seconds of blurry footage, mostly of the ceiling.) For the vast majority of Americans, a small cadre of court reporters provides the only glimpse into the judicial proceedings that involve the most momentous, contentious issues of the day.

I am one of those reporters, and let me tell you: It is awesome. I go to those cases our primary Supreme Court correspondent, the dazzlingly brilliant Dahlia Lithwick, can’t attend. I’ve covered arguments about confederate flags on Texas license plates, mentally disabled prisoners on death row, and police brutality against innocent people stuck in jail. Every case is obviously unique, but the process of reporting on arguments is pretty regimented and consistent. Let me walk you through the typical day of a court reporter.

When I arrive at the court in the morning—usually before 9 a.m.; arguments start at 10—I draw the angry glares of public spectators standing in line. On an ordinary day, they’ve been waiting for a few hours; for blockbuster cases, they’ll arrive days in advance. Court reporters must wear formal attire, which is deeply unpleasant for people like me who became journalists to avoid ever having to iron. My fancy (if rumpled) clothes draw the stares of a few line-standers, who wonder whether I’m famous. When they realize I am most definitely not, they scowl with disappointment. (One line-stander once told me she wished I were Nina Totenberg.)

After security, I set up shop among the other reporters, who are corralled into an office filled with tiny cubicles. The cubicles are for the “hard-pass holders,” your Adam Liptaks and Jess Bravins, while peons like me grab a spot at the desks lining the walls. At 9:28, everybody files into an adjacent room, where two members of the Public Information Office stand with giant piles of paper. These are the day’s “orders,” listing which cases the justices have agreed to hear and which they’ve denied. There’s an unspoken, unofficial pecking order for who gets to grab these first, and while the VIP journalists are quite kind about it, they are firm in asserting their VIP status.

At 9:30 on the nose, the orders go out, and everybody runs to their desks to report any big news. On days when the Supreme Court justices are hearing oral arguments, reporters then trickle upstairs into the courtroom. (Members of the press are stuffed in an alcove stage right, though hard pass holders have reserved seats with the best views.) At 10, we all rise as the justices enter dramatically from behind the red velvet curtain. On a typical argument day, Chief Justice John Roberts welcomes a few new lawyers into the Supreme Court bar, then gets the party started. On a day when decisions are handed down, Roberts announces that “Justice X has the opinion of the court in case Y.” That one sentence can be the biggest moment of the day—as when X was Justice Samuel Alito and Y was Hobby Lobby.

You can listen to the announcement of decisions in the press room, too, if you want to file your story in 15 seconds. But it’s not as much fun—and, more importantly, you don’t get to watch the justices’ subtle body language that telegraphs microaggressions like you’re so completely wrong and I really, really despise you right now. Alito is particularly bad at hiding his dismay over liberal decisions while Kennedy has a shockingly good poker face. I suppose that’s a necessary skill for the perennial swing justice, who often manages to piss off both the liberal wing and the conservative wing in the same day.

If Kennedy is stoned-faced on decision days, he’s a bundle of quasi-avuncular concern during oral arguments. Every justice has a trademark resting face: Breyer frequently looks a little confused; Kagan looks sharply quizzical; Alito looks bored; Scalia looks disgruntled; Roberts looks thoughtful and engaged. (As I’ve said before, the chief has freakishly good control over his facial expressions.) Kennedy’s face is harder to describe, though in a word, I’d call it worried. Dahlia once called him a “monster states’ rights fretter,” but really, he’s a fretter about everything. He speaks with stuttering incertitude, stammering his way through each question with his eyebrows pointing upward. Kennedy’s critics believe the justice is totally feigning this ponderous demeanor, but I suspect it’s sincere. The most powerful man in America truly does seem to agonize over the finer points of every case, even when his ultimate vote is not really in question.

Luckily, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan provide a powerful counterweight to Kennedy’s equivocations. The two often tag-team conservative attorneys, whipping up a firestorm of trenchant questions and stripping the most outrageous arguments of their scholarly patina. Sotomayor is especially great at restating arguments in a way that reveals their underlying stupidity. And like Scalia, she’s more than a little scary: Although unfailingly kind in person, Sotomayor is a bulldog on the bench. She glowers at attorneys peddling sophistry, tearing apart their feeble reasoning and tossing the carcass back at them. Every so often, she’ll all but call them liars. It’s a thrilling, unnerving performance from a woman who is, off the bench, perhaps the friendliest justice in recent memory.

When arguments finish, we reporters all scuttle downstairs, yammering about the morning’s weirdest moments and making our early predictions. Then we scatter to write our stories. I try to cover arguments in Dahlia’s trademark style, treating them more like a sports event than some esoteric kerfuffle over an arcane legal doctrine. After writing for Slate for nearly three years, I have learned the hard way that 99 percent of readers will click away if you use a Latin phrase. (As they should! Legal Latin is usually bastardized and always pointless.)

As I noted earlier, I don’t put on a suit for just anyone, and my friends and colleagues sometimes ask why I go through so much trouble to cover an institution that has broken my heart so many times. I’ll admit that, on my darker days, I’ve been known to call for the abolition of the court, especially after the conservative justices restricted Americans’ ability to protect themselves from corporate corruption and political malfeasance. But most of the time, I have a fondness for the damn place that I can’t quite shake. I’m not sure exactly what it is—a romantic view of the law, nostalgia for the Warren Court era, an obsession with the idea of constitutional equality—but I’m hooked on the court. It may be an unrequited love affair. But I’m in this one for the long haul.