Adam Liptak November 3, 2016
For The New York Times, Adam Liptak covers the United States Supreme Court and writes “Sidebar,” a column on legal developments. A graduate of Yale Law School, he practiced law for 14 years before joining The New York Times’s news staff in 2002.
He was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for “American Exception,” a series of articles examining ways in which the American legal system differs from those of other developed nations. He received the 2010 Scripps Howard Award for a five-part series on the Roberts Court.
He has taught courses on the Supreme Court and the First Amendment at several law schools, including Columbia, Yale and UCLA.
How long have you been covering the Supreme Court?
I started covering the court in 2008. I guess if I’m counting right, this is my 9th term. I had before then been The New York Times national legal reporter in New York for five or six years, and before that I practiced law for fourteen years for the New York firm called Cahill Gordon and Reindel and then ten years in-house at the NYT’s legal department.
How did you make that jump from being a practicing attorney to becoming a journalist?
I’d always wanted to be a reporter after I worked on my college paper, and I was a copy boy at The Times after college. I never got any traction back then, so I went off to law school and I still had in the back of my mind that someday I might like to be a journalist. I continued to do some freelance writing, and then ended up working with a lot of journalists as a lawyer at The Times, and I guess that combination of things caused me to come to the attention of an executive editor of the paper who noticed some of my outside writing and asked me if I’d like to come down to the newsroom.
It was a dream come true in that dreams don’t make any sense because I thought it was a crazy idea on his part. It was terrifying at first because I didn’t have the most rudimentary journalistic skills. After a while, I think I got the hang of it and I had a lot of fun covering the law from New York.
And then in 2008, Linda Greenhouse retired after thirty years of covering the court and they asked me to take the job. I couldn’t figure out how to say no, but I wasn’t super eager to move to Washington, or to follow Linda, or to take on a beat that, although prestigious, is in some ways very confining journalistically. You’re writing the same story as twenty other very good reporters, so it’s hard to write distinctive things much less generate scoops. I was a little wary of it, but I’ve gotten quite satisfied to have the job. I find it fascinating, and the press court turns out to be very collegial and sophisticated.
How did you transition from being wary of your post to finding it fascinating?
Part of it is the reason people cover the court for a long time—you know your Lyle Dennistons, your Linda Greenhouses, your Nina Totenbergs, your Tony Mauros—is because you just get better at it the more you do it. If you live on a steady diet of what the court is chewing over—the briefs and the arguments and the decisions and the justices’ habits of mind—you get better at it. That level of expertise and sophistication you pick up outweighs what is an authentic journalistic hazard of becoming too close to the institution you cover, being too attentive to its values.
Why do you think following the Supreme Court matters? How do you get your readers to care?
I’m going to quarrel with the premise. Your question was how do I make sure people care about the court, and I guess I don’t see that as my job. People can decide whether they care about the court or not. I don’t have a “civics lesson” view of the world—that it’s terrible that people can’t name the justices or don’t know what happened last term. People are busy. They can allocate their time to whatever they think is important. I view my role as being available to those people who want to be interested in the court; not to proselytize on behalf of the court about what a fabulous, interesting, wonderful institution it is.
What do you think would surprise most people about the court?
Well, maybe two things—and they cut in different directions. One is when people visit the court, they get a real sense of its stature, and grandeur. The courtroom is magnificent, and it really projects the accurate impression that this is a vital part of American government.
On the other hand, when they see the justices at argument, they might well get the sense that these are very able lawyers who talk in surprisingly informal ways, but are not the kind of demigods that you might expect them to be. They are instead just good lawyers and good judges trying to make sense of difficult problems. And I think people who go to arguments are surprised that it’s not filled with legal jargon and broad pronouncements, but that it really is a colloquial discussion aimed at getting the answer right in difficult legal questions.
If you could, are there any changes or reforms that you would like to see at the Supreme Court?
I don’t take public positions on things like life tenure or cameras in the court. I do think that the court could do itself, the journalists who cover it, and the public a favor by trying to spread out its work over the course of a month. There are mornings when you have important cert grants, important grants of petition seeking review, decisions issued from the bench, and then you have one or two major arguments. It’s impossible to cover all of that stuff simultaneously, and well. So to the extent the court could spread out its work, that would make my life easier. This is of little concern or no concern to the court, but it would also make coverage of the court more comprehensive and accurate. And that should be of some concern to the court.
The other thing the justices could do—and I’m a little surprised that they don’t do—is release their schedule of their public appearances and post transcripts of what they said. I think it would be impossible to imagine the President of the United States not releasing a public schedule. And I believe the justices are as important governmental officials as the president.
Do you have a favorite Supreme Court justice?
I’m attracted to justices who I think are the best writers and, relatedly, the best explainers of what they’re doing. I think those two justices are Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan. But I wouldn’t say I have “favorites.” That’s a dangerous thing for me to have. But those are qualities a journalist likes—the ones who are good explainers and the ones who are quotable. And in that regard, of course, we all miss Justice Scalia, who was very good across those dimensions as well.