U.S. Supreme Court Reporter
It was a close call for some reporters on the SCOTUS beat when the Affordable Care Act decision came down in 2012.
More than two years have passed, but veteran Supreme Court reporters can easily recall the day CNN and Fox News Channel got it wrong when announcing the court’s Obamacare decision.
Garrett Epps, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law who pens a column for The Atlantic, said he missed the reporting mess because he was actually inside the Supreme Court listening to Chief Justice John Roberts. He remembered Roberts talking about how the health care law’s individual mandate could not be upheld using the Constitution's Commerce Clause. “So I’m thinking, 'OK, well, he probably struck it down, '” Epps recalled. “Then he starts into this thing, ‘Now on the other hand, view it as a tax.’”
Epps was stunned. “And this could have actually been the end of my career at the court because I was so gobsmacked, like everyone else in the room, that I turned to [then-Huffington Post Supreme Court correspondent] Mike Sacks, who was sitting in front of me, and I went, ‘Holy crap, ’” Epps said. “And I should have been ejected, but the marshals, you could see them over there going, ‘Holy crap, ’ so I survived.”
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Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal, had a similar – but less audible – reaction. “I have a little more restraint than Garrett, ” she laughed. And Jess Bravin, The Wall Street Journal’s SCOTUS reporter, said he was saved by looking at the syllabus, a summary of the decision. “I looked at that first, and what saved me perhaps from making an error that day was seeing that combination of Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan – I said, 'That’s unusual, '” Bravin recalled, ticking off the last names of the more conservative chief justice and the four liberal members of the court.
“It was one of those days where bare competence was treated by my bosses as superlative performance, ” Bravin added.
The Affordable Care Act case – properly known as the National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius – was part of a broader discussion on coverage of the court that brought the veteran reporters before an audience at the National Archives Wednesday night.
Coyle called her beat both the best and one of the strangest. “It is an odd duck, ” she said. The biggest reason being that reporters don’t really get access to the subjects they cover – and that’s an understatement. “Supreme Court justices – except for in the very, very special and wonderful moment when they have a book to sell – don’t need publicity, ” explained Bravin.
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Coyle, who’s also a Supreme Court analyst for "PBS NewsHour, " said she’s had some luck because she’s built a certain amount of trust with the justices throughout the years. She’s also paid particularly close attention to how she’s requested interviews. “What I did was I wrote a request for an interview, submitted it to the head of the public information office and then waited and waited. Some of them were more prompt with their reply – they said 'no, '” Coyle recalled. “Others, it took several months.”
Each of the justices have a particular interview style, and Coyle remembered Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's in particular. “You’ll ask a question and then she’ll sit there and there’s this silence for the longest time and you want to give her the answer and you try to restrain yourself, ” Coyle said. “And then she will answer and she’ll come out with this perfect paragraph, but you have to be very patient.”
That experience cemented something else in Coyle’s mind as well: Even if the justices don’t always talk to the press, they do care about the coverage. “I know they follow the coverage, because, I’ll tell you, my first interview with Justice Ginsburg, as I was leaving her chambers, she was behind me and she tapped me on the shoulder and she said, ‘I watch you on the NewsHour on my treadmill, ’” Coyle recalled.