Some of you think we give Dahlia Lithwick, the legal affairs writer for Slate, a hard time. And it’s true that we often disagree with her (even if we always acknowledge her writerly talent). But we do find ourselves agreeing with much in her latest piece, criticizing recent critiques of the news media by several Supreme Court justices.
In response to Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks during a panel sponsored by the National Italian American Foundation, Lithwick writes:
Scalia said, “The press is never going to report judicial opinions accurately.” It seems our reporting is limited to: “Who is the plaintiff? Was that a nice little old lady? And who is the defendant? Was this, you know, some scuzzy guy? And who won? Was it the good guy that won or the bad guy?”
I’m still running the Nexis search for the reporting on last spring’s campaign-finance reform decisions that includes the terms “little old lady” and “scuzzy guy.” But it seems to me the reporting on that case was a lot clearer than the opinions.
And although, if anything, the Supreme Court press corps is hypercautious in its attention to legal detail at the expense of sensationalism, Scalia dismisses them, and their readers, because, in his view, “nobody would read it if you went into the details of the law that the court has to resolve.”
While we agree with Justice Scalia’s general point that news accounts of court cases often focus more on the facts, including facts about the parties, and less on the legal issues — which may not be surprising, given that the facts are more accessible to a lay audience — we do believe that most Supreme Court reporters try their best to explain the legal nitty-gritty to their readers. And many of them — including Lithwick, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, and Charles Lane of the Washington Post — have formal legal training.
A little bit more, after the jump.
Justice Alito joined Nino in the pile-on:
Justice Samuel Alito, in his comments at the same event, went on to complain about the role of the Internet in legal reporting. His view is that people understand the courts through news media that oversimplify and sensationalize. Moreover, and again according to the AP, [he complained about] people’s ability to amplify their comments worldwide online about judges and their opinions hurts the judiciary.
“This is not just like somebody handing out a leaflet in the past, where a small number of people can see this,” Alito said. “This is available to the world. … It changes what it means to be a judge.” Somehow the fact of widespread legal reporting is taking a toll on the judiciary?
… The justices may not like the fact that even bedpan repairmen in Bangalore have access to their judicial opinions, but it doesn’t mean reporters or bloggers are universally careless in explaining them.
We agree again with Lithwick. The ability to discuss legal issues and Supreme Court cases on the internet and in the blogosphere is a salutary development. Such additional coverage should not affect judges in exercising their official duties. If judges can’t handle criticism of their rulings from the New York Times editorial board or from bloggers, they’re probably in the wrong line of work.
(Random aside: Here’s another interesting jurisprudence piece in Slate, by Professor Rick Hasen of the Election Law blog, concerning the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Arizona voter ID case.)
The Supreme Press Critics [Slate]
Election Deform [Slate]
Earlier: How Many Drunk Mexicans Live In Dahlia’s Head?