Monday, October 6, 2008
"It's good to be back, covering something that nobody cares about," one well-known Supreme Court reporter said this morning.
Technically speaking, it's not true. Plenty of people care, starting with the two dozen or so reporters who showed up for the 10 a.m. oral arguments Monday. In the front row sat the regulars, AP's Mark Sherman, USA Today's Joan Biskupic, ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg, the New York Times' Adam Liptak, Tony Mauro of Legal Times. With a tip of the hat to the 1927 New York Yankees' lineup, I'd call it a veritable Murderers' Row of the judicial beat.
The front two benches are handsome, padded and essentially reserved for dedicated court reporters. They offer a great, unimpeded view of the action. It's so close, you can almost hear Justice Thomas snoring.
Behind these benches are individual cheap seats jammed together, many located behind pillars. For all, strict rules apply. No cameras, no tape recorders and, the ultimate insult, no ID cards hanging on chains around the neck. For reasons unknown to me, court security insists that reporters take off the omnipresent ID chains and lanyards that mark the true DC professional.
Multiple challenges arise in covering oral arguments. One is simply recording accurately what the justices and attorneys say, since a real-time transcript is only made available on high-profile cases. (Update: scratch that. I just realized that now, same-day transcripts are routinely available. Sweet!) Fundamentally, a court reporter has to know how much to read into a question posed by a justice. Sometimes a question is just a question; sometimes, it is a revelation. Here, I summon the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of my heroes. Holmes said the law is predictive: what will a court do in a given situation? A goal of oral argument reporting, I think, is to use the evidence presented through questions and known predilections of individual justices to predict what the court majority will, in the end, decide.