Bob Egelko May 24, 2018
Bob Egelko reports for the San Francisco Chronicle where he covers state and federal courts in California, the Supreme Court and the State Bar. He has been a reporter since 1970, spending 30 years with the Associated Press covering news, politics and occasionally sports in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, and legal affairs in San Francisco from 1984 onward. He worked for the San Francisco Examiner for five months in 2000, then joined The Chronicle in November 2000.
He recently spoke with SCOTUSDaily about his career covering courts, including some of his own ideas about how the make the Supreme Court more transparent and open to the public.
Of all your years as a reporter, how has this year compared to years past of covering courts out here in California?
I can’t draw any great distinctions between what the state courts have done, though the California Supreme Court wrote an interesting ruling the other day on employees vs. independent contracts that apparently is going to have quite an impact on the so-called “gig economy.” But I can’t say that this year covering state courts has been different than most. But the federal courts have been a little more adventurous, as you know. There have been some interesting personnel developments and some big rulings as well with some high-profile cases being filed here relating to the president’s travel ban and sanctuary policies. We’ve had quite a few eye-catching cases.
A lot of people have been talking about the “Trump effect” – what do you think has been the biggest impact of the Trump administration on the federal judiciary?
Here it’s mainly been litigation because there are six or seven vacancies on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — that’s out of 29 active judges — and the president has only nominated two judges. But there haven’t been many Trump judicial appointees or any other federal appointees in California. Not even a permanent U.S. Attorney in San Francisco.
The main impact is on litigation for or against the Trump administration taking up a lot of time in our courts. I assume that the Trump effect on the courts is to come, but for reasons that I’m simply not aware of, he’s allowed vacancies to stay vacant.
Can you talk a little about the loss of Judge Reinhardt, what he brought to the court and what his loss might signal for the Ninth Circuit and for the federal judiciary writ large?
Judge Reinhardt was definitely a profound voice on the Ninth Circuit for many years. As you know, he was the last of the Carter appointees, and that was important because the Ninth Circuit had not been a particularly liberal circuit until Congress expanded it late in Carter’s presidency, and he got to appoint quite a number of judges. And that changed the court’s ideological character, which has endured. Even with Republican presidents, there haven’t been that many vacancies, so the court has remained a relatively liberal voice while the other branches of government have grown more conservative.
As for Judge Reinhardt… He was the most reversed judge in the country, but it didn’t seem to bother him much. He was accessible — you could approach him, talk to him, phone him. He was just highly thought of. Stephen Reinhardt was a liberal judge but there are a number of liberal judges. He stood out even more than the rest because he was a holdover from a time that’s gone past. But the court he leaves is still the court the president condemns as hostile and political and all that, and that hasn’t changed and won’t change with Judge Reinhardt’s departure.
And on the note of Judge Reinhardt’s accessibility, the Ninth Circuit is an open and accessible court. You can get these judges on the phone, they have an information office, they live-stream hearings, they make us feel welcome as the press. I don’t feel like we’re under suspicion, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court that seems to treat every request for press coverage as an intrusion. The Ninth Circuit and the federal courts in general seem to feel that the more public information that’s available, the better. Judge Reinhardt was part of that, and I’m grateful for it.
Do you think the federal courts’ willingness to be open and transparent has had any negative impacts on their ability to get their jobs done?
I don’t think so. It allows reporters like me to cover cases as they happen. They telecast things, so I don’t have to go down to Los Angeles or Sacramento to watch hearings. It seems like the courts understand the more open they are, the more informed the public will be. I can’t think of negative consequences of their openness other than a dramatic contrast with their elder kin in D.C.
If you could put forward a wish list of reforms for the U.S. Supreme Court, what would you suggest that they do to make themselves more transparent?
Oh, golly. It would be nice to have live audio stream and it would be wonderful to have television coverage. I mean, we have that already in other courts. The California Supreme Court has had that for decades, and I’ve yet to see any grandstanding that would distort the meaning of what was said in court. I’m probably not qualified to say what the steps are needed to get more transparent, but let’s face it, it is difficult to get into Supreme Court argument. You stand in line or you pay others to stand in line for you, but folks want to see the way things proceed. Otherwise they have to rely on the likes of us to give them excerpts from the hearings. But I think they would learn a lot more if they could watch the hearings themselves. I’ve never heard a convincing reason for denying that kind of access, and I guess I would just suggest the justices look at their colleagues in the state court systems and the federal court systems that allow it and ask them if there’s ever been an example of negative impacts.
It’s hard for me to see how our government and democracy is strengthened by more darkness. Particularly about this institution that is not all that easy to understand on the face of it, but if people actually see them, then maybe it becomes more comprehensible.
What has been your most memorable moment covering the courts?
One thing that I still find memorable was in 2008 when the California Supreme Court struck down the then-existing ban on same-sex marriage. I remember reading the opinion by Chief Justice George and doing what you do: reading it, underlining it, taking notes and writing a story. But in another part of my brain I was thinking, I get to cover history here. I get to be on the front lines and tell other people about it. I am so fortunate. It’s not like I’m making history, but I get to tell people what happened in a way that helps them understand better. I remember those two parts of my brain thinking, “This is what it means to be a public affairs reporter.”