Mark Sherman March 9, 2017
Mark Sherman has covered the Supreme Court for The Associated Press since 2006, a period that has included blockbuster decisions on health care and same-sex marriage and big changes in the court’s membership. Early in his career, Sherman was briefly a Foreign Service officer and served as a copyboy at The New York Times. He is a Brooklyn native and a resident of Washington D.C., where he lives just a few blocks from the court with his wife and children.
How long have you been covering the Supreme Court?
I’ve been covering the court for a little more than 10 years. I started just after Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined the court, and before that I had covered the Justice Department for a while. And before that I had a variety of political beats and government beats over about 25 years.
How does covering SCOTUS stack up against some of the political reporting you used to do?
Covering the Supreme Court is in most ways very different from political reporting, mostly because what we’re reporting on is in front of us either because we’re listening to arguments or reading briefs and opinions. It’s alike in the sense that there is politics on the court, and there is politics in the way cases come to the court, and some say there’s even politics in the way some cases are decided. So, it’s not very much alike but it’s also not completely divorced from it.
When you interview a justice one-on-one—for instance when you interviewed Justice Ginsburg last year and she made the comments about Donald Trump getting elected—do you go into it thinking, regardless of what’s said, it is going to be a big story?
In one sense, you’re right. It’s a rare thing to get an interview with a justice. I’m not sure that I have a sense that it’s necessarily going to be a big story but I have a sense that it’s going to be a pretty well-read story because there are people like myself of course who live and breathe this stuff, and because generally the court is more of a mystery than the other branches of government. There seems to be more of an interest when we pierce that veil and get to talk to a justice one-on-one. That said, I didn’t go into that interview with Justice Ginsburg with any particular expectation of a big story.
If you could change anything about the Supreme Court, what would it be?
This is one of those “above my pay grade” questions. I’ll speak in terms of what would affect my work and be in the public interest, and that is to have more access to the court. Obviously, the end of that road is cameras in the courtroom—which I don’t think is likely any time soon—but maybe a streaming audio of arguments might be an intermediate step along the way.
There was a lot of excitement about the 9th Circuit’s oral argument in the travel ban case, which of course was live-streamed and had a very large audience. It showed both that the technologically requires no great feat and that there is great interest in having it. And the fact that it was being aired live didn’t appear to distort the argument, which is something that people have argued when saying Supreme Court arguments shouldn’t be available by audio or video.
What do you think will be the impetus for change in creating these avenues to increased access?
I think some of it is the inevitable changing of the guard at the court. It is true that justices, before they’re on the bench, seem open to the idea and become less so once they’re on the court. I think that may have more to do with the notion of consensus, and not being seen to publicly differ with your colleagues other than on argued cases. But as the personnel changes, and as you have more people that have come of age in an era of not just television also the online world, I think that will inevitably alter how justices view the allowance of technology into the courtroom.
What was your most memorable moment covering the court?
That’s easy. That was the day the first health care decision came down in June of 2012. There was an enormous amount of pressure all the way around because it was the president’s main domestic achievement, he was running for re-election, it was such a partisan issue and the nature of the challenge was partisan as well.
It had all the elements and everyone was watching. My editors were unusually amped up over it. And on a personal note, the morning the decision came down, The Washington Post wrote a story about SCOTUSblog in which its founder, Tom Goldstein, made the claim that he wouldn’t be surprised if SCOTUSblog beat The Associated Press in reporting the outcome. That was a little bit of additional pressure, and a story that I didn’t really need my editors to read first thing that morning.
And then the case came out and we all scrambled to find out what the court had done. Without mentioning names, there were a couple of organizations that didn’t quite get it right at first. This heightened the fact that I was doing my job of accurately reporting what the court had done, because not everyone did. It was a huge moment and a real high to be part of the coverage.
So, did SCOTUSblog beat you?
That’s a good question. No, they didn’t. And Tom was gracious enough to concede that after the fact.