By Nick Judd
Journalists covering the Supreme Court's health care decision on Thursday are gearing up for the fast-paced nature of a low-tech court.
With a ban on cameras in the courtroom and a prohibition against cellphone use in the room where opinions are handed out, journalists will be scrambling to relay the verdict in a timely fashion—and that's before they get a chance to parse what the ruling really says. Cameras in the courtroom could disrupt the court's proceedings or even change the behavior of justices and lawyers alike, some critics point out.
Lyle Denniston, the veteran court reporter from SCOTUSblog, will be the person that many will turn to for the first analysis of the decision. The 81-year-old has become somewhat of a courthouse celebrity in the days leading up to this history-making opinion. But before he can even dial up his colleagues with the news, he'll have to dash to his desk in the press room, he tells Yahoo News. Once he gets in touch with them, they will in turn pass his reporting along to the outside world.
Sure, the oral arguments aren't available immediately, but written opinions go up online right away and a recording of the court proceedings will arrive within a few days. Still, the ban on news flowing straight from the courtroom to the people gives an old-school feel to the reporting, heightening the drama.
In the 54 years he's been covering the Supreme Court, Denniston hasn't changed his methods much either, kind of like the court itself. (He still maintains an aol.com email address.)
"I still cover the Court largely as I always have, doing a lot of research and reading, trying to follow all of the cases granted as well as those coming up from lower courts," he said in an email, "but technology has made keeping up vastly easier (and much less expensive). I do depend entirely on digital communication now; like so many others, I could not function at the level I want without the technology of the computer and access to the Net."
But as everyone else adjusts to the always-on nature of 21st-century life, patience is wearing thin for those in need of oral arguments right away.
"The only things that don't come out in real-time are the oral arguments, of which one gets audio recordings and transcripts delayed by several hours," Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School who has argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court, wrote in an email. "I see no point at all in not letting the world hear the arguments at the very time they are presented and [there's] no way to justify the current practice of imposing even a relatively brief delay."
Tribe may be an influential voice—President Barack Obama and Roberts are former students—but the chief justice, who holds his position for life, has given no indication that he'll change the ban on cameras in the courtroom. In the meantime, reporters like Denniston—even with the help of new tools like Skype and outlets with names like "SCOTUSblog"—will stick to phones and shoe leather to break news from the court.
Nick Judd is managing editor for TechPresident. This is part of a series of dispatches for Yahoo News about how campaigns are using technology in the 2012 election.
- the Supreme Court
- Lyle Denniston