The Ticket

Lyle Denniston, icon of Supreme Court press corps, on health care case and being older than the justices

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

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Denniston on CSPAN.

On Monday, the first day of the final week that two landmark Supreme Court decisions will be announced, all eyes will be focused on veteran Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston. Not only is the 81-year-old a bastion of legal knowledge, but he's also a speed demon, and is often the first to report the outcome of cases live on SCOTUSblog, a legal website. Last Thursday, reporters anxiously awaiting news about the high profile health care and Arizona immigration court cases began expressing their admiration for his lightening-fast tempo. "I...would love to see #teamlyle trend," Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein wrote on Twitter. New Yorker courtwatcher and CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin joined in: "me too!"

But Denniston, who has covered the Supreme Court for 54 years for various newspapers and now for SCOTUSblog, was charmingly unaware of his fan club in an interview with Yahoo News last week:

Yahoo News: Did you know that a group of reporters was trying to get your name to trend on Twitter today?

Lyle Denniston: They were trying to do what?

YN: They were writing "team Lyle" on Twitter to get your name to show up on the site as most talked about.

LD: Oh really? Well I'm an old guy so I don't understand that kind of thing. I guess it's positive, right?

YN: Yes, definitely.

LD: Ok, that's good.

Denniston is a sober voice of reason and depth in a sometimes untrustworthy and superficial world of Supreme Court reporting, when short-timers (like myself!) descend for a few big-ticket cases and then flit away again. But what's earned Denniston even more fandom than his encyclopedic knowledge of the Supreme Court docket is how quickly and generously he shares what he knows on SCOTUSblog. Many reporters who don't personally go to the Supreme Court press room to await paper copies of decisions rely on Denniston to be the first to report the outcome, and to post the actual decision online. Denniston says he enjoys this collaborative approach, rather than jealously guarding the news.

"The thing about life in the blogging universe is that people do share and support each other. It's not the same dog-eat-dog competition feel you have in the newspaper business," he says. "I like that a lot."

But a change he is less excited about is the emptying out of the Supreme Court press room. "So much of the raw material with which Supreme Court reporters work is online, so most of the reporters don't come around to the press room anymore. The press room is really very lonesome, there are only about four or five of us here [on a non-decision day]." He says this has resulted in less "intimacy" in Supreme Court reporting, which sometimes misses out on the personalities of the justices and other court characters, and ignores lower-profile decisions.

"[The justices] are very real people," he says. "And mostly they're accessible and they're fascinating people. I learn a lot from them every time I have a conversation with them. They're all younger than me now that Justice Stevens has retired. I like to see these young people develop."

Over his 54 years, Denniston has reported on a quarter of all the justices ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and he's outlasted the careers of 10 justices, who were selected and then retired in his time covering the court. He got his start as a local court reporter in Nebraska when he was only 17 years old.

When asked if he's seen another decision that has attracted as much attention as Obama's health care case, Denniston cites Bush vs. Gore and Roe v. Wade. He also jokingly mentions Marbury v. Madison, which established the Supreme Court's right to overturn laws in 1803. "I wasn't around then but some people maybe think I was," Denniston says.

Though Denniston doesn't like using Twitter or Facebook much, he does like being able to look up cases quickly online and he also uses Skype in the press room to tell SCOTUSblog staffers the results of Supreme Court rulings, which they add to the liveblog.

"I'll tell you frankly I don't even understand Facebook. If I had one of my grandchildren sitting next to me in the court pressroom I could maybe navigate Facebook. It's like being 100 miles offshore in fog in a canoe."

Despite his decades of experience, Denniston doesn't have a guess as to which way the court will rule on Obama's health care plan. "I have really no idea. There are times when I think there's a real chance that they'll uphold the mandate, there are other times when I go back and read the transcript and say, well that looks less likely than maybe I thought so," he says. "It genuinely could go either way. I've got to be prepared either way it does."

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