Jess Bravin March 16, 2017
Jess Bravin covers the U.S. Supreme Court for The Wall Street Journal, after earlier postings as United Nations correspondent and editor of the WSJ/California weekly.
Prior to joining The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Bravin was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, contributed to publications including the Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar and Spy magazine, evaluated scripts for a Hollywood talent agency, and managed a campaign for local school board.
He spoke with SCOTUSDaily about how he has “fun” at the Supreme Court and what he can expect from Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination hearing next week.
How did you get your start as a Supreme Court reporter?
One of my first jobs as a reporter was covering the civil courts in Santa Ana, California. It was a giant suburban courthouse and it was an extremely exhausting and difficult job because you had to keep track of dozens of different departments within the building, look for something newsworthy, check which suits were being filed each day, and do it in a way that the reporter from the competing suburban newspaper wouldn’t. Remember this was my first job out of college, but I remember thinking, “You know it would be so much easier to cover the Supreme court. Everything they do is important. They keep bankers hours. There’s almost no scoops. Anyone could do that! That would be easy!” That’s when I first thought about covering the Court, but I never thought I’d actually do it.
After that job I went to law school, and after law school instead of entering practice I stumbled into a job at The Wall Street Journal. At the time, it had recently opened a California edition and wanted a reporter to cover legal events in California. Since I went to law school at UC Berkeley, I was fairly familiar with that sort of thing and ended up at that job. Then through a number of other events, it worked out that I was lined up to succeed the Supreme Court reporter here at the Journal when he retired.
I’m curious, were you right to have thought that covering the Supreme Court would be easy?
It’s easier in some ways and it’s harder in others. It is easier in that the actions of the Court are fairly predictable—at least in terms of timing—compared to many other news events. And it’s different than a teeming state court building where all kinds of crazy things are happening all the time, and anyone can walk in the door and file a lawsuit. And it’s different than covering the trial level court because here you’re dealing with issues or cases that are going to have impact across the nation. They will at least shape the way lawyers, and to an extent the public, think about legal issues and understand the structural nature of the country.
But I want to say that I have a lot of admiration for local courts reporters who are in places like that courthouse in Santa Ana, and the type of work they do.
What is the most fun part of covering the Court?
Even though the place is built like a Greek temple, I wouldn’t really call it a place of fun and games and all the things we think about in Greek myth. It’s a fairly serious place. So “fun” is something you’d have to think of as a relative concept.
But there’s the same sort of feeling you’ll hear lawyers portentously talk about: “Walking up the steps I always get this rush, this gulp in my throat.” I don’t know that I get all emotional about it but I do have a very strong sense that what goes on there matters, and can matter for decades. I see it as a great privilege and responsibility and I really have to say I’m grateful for this chance.
I guess a fun part of covering the Court is the kinds of conversations that go on in the press room, where a lot of the reporters play junior supreme court. After arguments, we tend to discuss the cases and make predictions. I often find that to be kind of fun.
Next week we have Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination hearing. What can we expect?
It’s a foregone conclusion that he’s going to get confirmed. So, the question is what can we expect from this as a subsidiary benefit since the ultimate outcome was predetermined with the election results in November.
I think there are really two things to look for in these hearings. One, is Gorsuch trying to be stylistically as impressive as possible and seem as confident and polished and knowledgeable as he can, while at the same time having a gleaming new car sheen. Think of a brand new, flawlessly made Tesla driving in there with no dings and driving off as people admire that car. I think that’s pretty much what he aims to do, without giving any indication about what’s inside the car. We wants to say as little substance as possible, but make as impressive a showing as he can.
Second is the question of what the senators on that panel want. I think for the Democrats it’s really a political forum for them to use Gorsuch as a kind of anvil to hammer Trump. They want to try to relate everything to Trump and force him to either embrace the president or repudiate him. To make Gorsuch embrace Trump—who you know, is not a popular president—helps Democrats keep their base appeased. To make Gorsuch repudiate Trump allows Democrats to say that even Trump’s own nominee won’t agree with him and perhaps will even provoke Trump to start tweeting nasty things about the guy he nominated.
What do we know about Judge Gorsuch as a person?
You know, the guy hasn’t been that great about doing interesting things in his life. There’s no story about him kayaking across the world or saving someone’s life in Antarctica. There’s nothing like that. His life was extraordinarily conventional for someone coming from the political elite, which he did. Everyone knows his resume now: attending Columbia, Harvard Law School, Oxford University, his clerkship for retired Justice White, and his brief time in the Bush administration. This is someone who grabbed brass ring after brass ring and apparently is smart and friendly enough to deserve it. But this is not someone who went to study with Tibetan monks.
From what I can tell from talking to people who’ve known him is he’s extremely personable, but does not seem to have a tremendous number of interests beyond some outdoors sports like fly fishing and hiking and occasionally skeet shooting. He’s pretty much a straightforward law guy. Most of his life has either been focused in practicing law or thinking about the way the law should be applied.
There’s not necessarily a call for Supreme Court justices who are also exciting adventurers. That isn’t exactly part of the job description, and there’s a reason people find lawyers and judges kind of boring. I don’t want to say he’s boring though. I don’t know him and I’ve never met him. But when you ask people to say something interesting about him, the stories they tell really show what kind of guy he is. Someone said to me, “Well, I had to go out of town in a hurry and asked him if he could feed my dog and he said sure.” I was like, that’s it?! That’s the most interesting story you could tell me about him?
What would surprise people most about the Supreme Court?
What would surprise them is how serious and smart and sophisticated the institution is in going about its work. Anyone who watches C-SPAN for any extended period and looks at what a Congressional hearing is like can see that sometimes there will be very articulate and thoughtful remarks made, but usually not. Usually there is not a lot of brilliance and sophistication and attention to trying to get things right. And I don’t want to say the Supreme Court is perfect, but to listen to the arguments and see the way that issues are approached I think would be reassuring to a lot of people. I think most people who watch an argument or really take the time to grapple with Supreme Court opinion will come away more impressed than they might have expected to be given the level of cynicism and derision about public institutions these days.
It’s a weird thing to say people would be surprised to find out that the institution is pretty good at its job. But I think that is more of a commentary on other institutions than on this one.