For all of the power they command, the Supreme Court of the United States operates in intentional and mysterious obscurity. With the help of Slate's Dahlia Lithwick and the New York Times' Adam Liptak, Brooke and Bob begin to unpack the workings of our highest court.
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Song: "Bubble Wrap" (From the film "Wall-E") by Thomas Newman.
BROOKE: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. Recognize the music? Of course you do. Who among us doesn’t hear this iconic tune and think immediately of the honor, prestige, and dignity for which it stands? Actually, I have no idea what it is.
BROOKE: Well I was looking for some music inspired by the Supreme Court of the United States. But there isn’t any, so I used the Australian National anthem.
BOB: That makes sense.
BROOKE: The new term of the Supreme Court started, as it does every year, on the first Monday of October. At a time when our President appears on podcasts and legislators live-tweet, the nine justices of the Supreme Court operate in intentional obscurity. Obscurity that confounds the media, with their yawning 24-hour news hole and endless airings of congressional food fights. How do you dramatize the work of nine somber people who reach their complex decisions in private after lengthy rumination? Well, by snatching up their rulings, in the ritual known as the running of the interns.
Anchor: Bill, stand by, we want to go back now to the Supreme Court - you see some of the interns running out with the decisions. Jan Crawford has more information. Jan, what have you learned?
Jan Crawford: Well Nora what you see now, this is how we find out when these decisions come down. All of the interns - h ere comes our intern now - with the decision,
BOB: And yet, for all we don’t know, we know that they are important, serving for life and issuing decisions that have potential to change the nation. And so on this special hour of On The Media, we’re going to peer past the Corinthian columns, over the bench, and into the inner workings of the highest court in the land.
BROOKE: Did you know the justices always sit in a particular order? On the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts sits in the middle, and the rest fan outward according to seniority with the two newest Justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, on the end. They also speak in order of seniority when they’re in the secretive Conference Room. Stanford’s Jeff Fisher, who argues before the court, explains it in a lecture:
FISHER: Nobody besides the nine justices can be in the room. So the Junior Justice [..] is required to open and close the door for everybody else, get the coffee, take the notes. I’m not
BROOKE: In the cafeteria, they always sit in the seat of the justice they replaced.
KAGAN:It’s an institution that’s very attached to its traditions.
BROOKE: Justice Kagan at a summit in 2013.
KAGAN: There has to be a very good reason to change the way of doing business at the court. And I think that’s because people realize that we’re doing pretty well and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
BROOKE: And so, she says, the justices don’t email. They either reason with one another in person, or, apparently, on scrolls.
KAGAN: It’s very heavy ivory paper. Looks like it came out of the 1800s of something. But it seems to work very well.
BOB: But while the justices remain slow to embrace new technologies, they have grown less wary of the public eye. A study out in May tallied their interviews and other public appearances. In the 1970s, there were a total of 95. From 2005 to 2014: a collective 880. Justice Sotomayor, who has even appeared on Sesame Street, has given the most interviews. [music up and under] Justice Stephen Breyer is the second celebrity justice -- even appearing (unusually) on late night TV, last month. On a book tour, no less, speaking with Stephen Colbert.
Colbert: It makes me feel very important to have you here because usually when you’re some place something big is being decided, right?
BOB: And Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initials are now a meme:
GINSBURG: And I have a supply of Notorious R.B.G. t-shirts that I give to law clerks for birthday presents.
BOB: And yet, the court still prevents anyone from bringing a phone or any recording equipment into the chamber, though pens and paper are permitted. (Marshalls sometimes unscrew pens to check for cameras.) And once you’re in to watch the justices read their opinions from the bench, you can’t leave until they’re done. Since the court is set in its ways, reporters have to make some big decisions.
LITHWICK: more and more it’s as though there’s this double life.
BOB: Dahlia Lithwick writes about the court for Slate, and hosts their Amicus podcast:
LITHWICK: You know there’s the court itself - the drama that’s going on inside the courtroom and almost no one can afford the time to cover it anymore because we have to be outside tweeting. So it’s really really strange, it’s almost as though things that happen in that c hamber where there’s only seven or eight reporters who can spare the time to watch - those things almost didn’t happen at all, it’s really odd.
BOB: Justice Scalia, in a speech in 1990, said that law [quote] “is a specialized field, fully comprehensible only to the expert.” [end quote] And so it follows that covering the court isn’t quite like other beats.
LIPTAK:You barely get to use the tools in the journalistic tool box.
BOB: Adam Liptak covers the court for the New York Times.
LIPTAK: You're not really getting scoops, you're not finding out secret stuff. You're not cultivating sources. You're doing a kind of deadline legal analysis, taking complex jargon-filled material and trying to make them accessible in very short order to the reader.
LITHWICK: But I do think that it’s a beat that it takes a couple of years to get your bearings. You know, I often say - it’s a beat for real wonky people. I often joke that we leave this beat the same way that the justice’s leave the court. You know, feet first.