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September 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Pulitzer Prize Winning Reporter Discusses the Media and the Federal Judiciary

Linda Greenhouse retired in mid-July following a 40-year career with the New York Times. She covered the U.S. Supreme Court and, on occasion other aspects of the federal Judiciary since 1978, and in 1998 won the Pulitzer Prize for her Supreme Court coverage. She was interviewed recently by Dick Carelli, now a member of the Office of Public Affairs, Administrative Office, but formerly the Associated Press Supreme Court reporter for 24 years.

Here are some of Greenhouse’s observations:

Linda Greenhouse, recently retired after 30 years of covering the U.S. Supreme Court for The New York Times, talked to the Administrative Office's Dick Carelli about the relationship between the news media and the federal courts. She soon will teach at the Yale Law School.

On technological changes in journalism and the courts over the past three decades . . .

“When I started covering the [Supreme] Court, you couldn’t have an informed conversation with anybody anywhere, except somebody who had been at Court and picked up the bench copy of that opinion that day. I don’t think fax machines were in common use. So, what technology has done is really enable a conversation about the Court, and I found that made my job more rewarding, richer and much less isolated.

Now the Supreme Court has a very good website. Commentators put up immediate links. People put up their own speciality blogs. It’s really night and day.”

On the news media’s commitment to covering courts . . .

“I would have to say it’s diminished at a time when I think it’s more necessary than ever. I do occasionally get calls from judges around the country who tell me they’re having a problem with the local media; that they’re not being covered well or being covered at all. They ask me if they should call in the reporters and have a little chat. And I always say that’s nice but that’s not going to get you anywhere. The ones you need to connect with are the editors, the producers, the news directors—the ones who are in a position to make the commitment to let the reporters stay on the beat long enough so that they are not covering the federal courthouse one day and the local school board meeting the next day.”

On cameras in court . . .

“I’m in favor of it, in a general way. I understand the objections. I’ve never been a crusader for cameras, but I think, well done and well used, [camera coverage] in the hands of people who know what they’re doing certainly enhances the understanding of the court system.”

On judges’ pay restoration . . .

“I think linking judicial pay to congressional pay, which seemed like a good idea when it first happened, is an example of the common rule of ‘watch what you wish for.’ I just think it’s a horrible impasse. What really got my attention was a hearing that the Brookings Institution ran a few years ago where Justice Breyer made a presentation. He said “we’re not trying to get judges’ pay raised to the level of senior partners in most law firms; that’s not the issue. But 10 or 20 or 25 years ago, judicial pay was basically on a level of pay of tenured law professors at leading law schools, and now that’s completely out of whack. The law professors’ pay has gone up, and judges’ pay has stagnated. I just think the politics of it is certainly unfortunate.”

On the relationship between the news media and the federal courts . . .

“I think it’s a very personal thing. It has to do with the personalities of individuals, the notion of appropriate interaction with the press that judges bring with them from their previous careers, and the kind of media climate or context of any federal courthouse.

I remember I gave a presentation at one of the new-judge programs at the FJC more than a few years ago, and I was startled at the hostility from some of these new judges. And those who were the most suspicious and skeptical were the ones coming from corporate law practice; not people coming from the public sector or magistrate judges. That’s what I meant when I said it’s hard to generalize about judges, or reporters for that matter. It’s a very personal thing, the kind of background that they bring to the task of the interaction. So whatever can be done on a one-on-one basis certainly is a very helpful thing.”