John Roberts, SCOTUS, Supreme Court

Anatomy of a Rumor: The Story Behind Chief Justice John Roberts’s ‘Retirement’

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

Everyone is wondering: Where did that erroneous rumor of an imminent retirement by Chief Justice John Roberts come from? The gossip spread like wildfire, triggering thousands of texts, blog posts, and emails — a few hundred of them to the ATL tips line — before Radar, which first published the rumor, retracted its report.

We were skeptical, which is one reason why we didn’t write about the gossip as quickly as some other outlets. We reached out to the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office after we heard the rumor, and we didn’t want to write about it until we heard back from the PIO (or at least gave them a little time to respond).

Of course, we have many Supreme Court sources other than the official ones — and they reacted with extreme skepticism when we ran the Radar report by them. One of our SCOTUS experts actually laughed out loud after we (sheepishly) asked, “Have you heard anything about a possible Roberts retirement?” This source noted that JGR would sooner die — literally — than give Obama the chance to appoint his successor.

Like many a promising legal career, the Roberts resignation rumor traces its origins to a 1L class at Georgetown University Law Center….

Here’s an account of what went down in Professor Peter Tague’s criminal law class this morning, from a 1L at Georgetown Law:

Today’s class was partially on the validity of informants not explaining their sources. [Professor Tague] started off class at around 9 am EST by telling us not to tell anyone, but that we might find it interesting that tomorrow, Roberts would be announcing his retirement for health concerns. He refused to tell anyone how he knew. Then, at around 9:30, he let everyone in on the joke.

Note the timestamps on the Radar posts. The first one came out at 6:10 a.m., i.e., the Pacific Time equivalent of 9:10 a.m. Eastern time. The retraction came out at 6:36 a.m., i.e., the Pacific Time equivalent of 9:36 a.m. Eastern — shortly after Professor Tague let his class in on the joke.

CORRECTION (3/5/10, 7:30 PM): We retract the paragraph above regarding the timestamps. See here.

A second Georgetown Law student confirms that Professor Tague’s class was probably where the Roberts resignation rumor got started:

Our criminal justice professor started our 9 am lecture with the news that roberts will be resigning tomorrow for health reasons — that he could not handle the administrative burdens of the job. He would not say how he knows — but halfway through our lecture on the credibility and reliability of informants he revealed that the Roberts rumor was made up to show how someone you ordinarily think is credible and reliable (i.e., a law professor) can disseminate inaccurate information.

By then the horse was out of the barn — and running at a gallop:

[B]etween the hour when the class began and when he revealed that he made it up, plenty of students texted and IM’ed their friends and family…. [So] there’s a very good chance that the Roberts rumor that spread like wildfire on the internet was sparked by an eccentric law professor trying to make a point.

We’ve reached out to the aforementioned eccentric law professor, by telephone and by email, but we haven’t heard back from him yet. If we do, we will update this post.

And that, dear readers, is what we do around here — we talk to multiple sources, including the sources most directly involved in a given story, in the course of our reporting. We exercise judgment in deciding what to report and when to report it. We do want to be first, but we also want to be right.

So if the JGR retirement rumor leads to the usual bashing of online news sources for purported unreliability, please don’t lump us in with the other outlets. Thanks.

UPDATE (5 PM): The Radar retraction begins as follows: “Despite considering resigning from the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts will stay on the bench, has exclusively learned.” Was the “despite considering” language disingenuous on Radar’s part? Or did the original tipster not tell Radar what actually happened (perhaps out of embarrassment)?

UPDATE (11 PM): A third Georgetown Law student questions the timing outlined above and suggests that Radar may have retracted the item before Professor Tague explained the truth to his (surprisingly gullible) students. But the central point remains: this rumor, which traveled far and wide, apparently got started by a professor’s pedagogical prank.

CORRECTION (3/5/10, 7:30 PM): For our best effort at piecing together the exact timeline, see here.

Earlier: ATL Exclusive: John Roberts Is Still Chief Justice!

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