Richard Wolf April 10, 2017
Richard Wolf has reported on the Supreme Court, the White House and Congress in a Washington career spanning a quarter century (and $16 trillion in government debt.) He spoke with SCOTUSDaily last Thursday just after Senate Democrats blocked the nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch and Senate Republicans changed the Senate rules to allow the confirmation to go through.
How did you get your start covering the Supreme Court?
I only started covering the court in 2012. I had been covering the White House, and I had covered Congress, so this is my third and final branch. Unless I end up covering the press corps, I guess. The immediate circumstances were that Joan Biskupic, whom you may know, had left us just as the first major health care case was coming before the court. This was the one that was the three-day extravaganza back in March of 2012. With about a month or two to go before those oral arguments, she left for Reuters, and so I took over the beat temporarily. I was still covering the White House and the 2012 election, but because one of my beats in the past had been health care, I was asked to step in and at least cover those arguments. By the time that term ended, I was asked if I would stay on and leave the White House to cover the Supreme Court. I had covered the White House for about five years so I said sure.
How does covering the Supreme Court compare to your past experiences covering the White House and Congress?
Good question. It’s very different from both of them. There is much less access to primary sources covering the court. Chief Justice Roberts likes to say that they’re the most public branch, that everything they do is out there to be inspected. By that he means is everything they do in the end. What you don’t get to see, and what you don’t get to hear much about, is how the sausage is made. Unlike covering Congress, and to some degree unlike covering the White House, everything is happening pretty much behind closed doors – between the justices at their conference and between the justices and their clerks – and you don’t get to be a part of that process. So, in that sense, it’s a little bit less satisfying than covering Congress, which is the epitome of everything happening out in the open. You can grab members off the Senate or House floor and interview them. The White House is kind of in between: a lot is happening behind closed doors but there’s lots of leaking and sources. And then the Supreme Court is the extreme on the other end.
But I love the SCOTUS beat because you don’t get sucked in to politics. At least with the court, for all of the access problems, you know you’re covering something that has a start, a middle and an end – a little less so with an eight-member court, perhaps. Usually when a case comes before the court, you know that in eight or nine months, kind of like a pregnancy, there’s going to be a result. And so, you can follow it to its natural conclusion, rather than following an issue in the White House where in the end nothing may happen.
Can you explain what happened today with the filibuster over Judge Gorsuch and the deployment of the nuclear option? And can you explain, from your point of view, how we ended up here?
What happened today was sort of the inexorable end to a process that started in 2003, though some say 1987, and some would even go back to the 1960’s. The courts are extremely important to both parties, and over the years there have been controversies involving lower federal courts and the Supreme Court where one party tries to block the nominations coming from the other side. You’d see senators of the other party using whatever strings and power they had to hold up nominations or to block nominations coming from the other side. So, this has just been a never-ending escalation.
The two most recent iterations of which were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid using the nuclear option for lower courts and executive branch nominations in 2013, after what Democrats said was an unprecedented blockade of Obama’s judges. Then you had Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans refusing to even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland for almost 300 days. In the latest move, Democrats actually blocked Gorsuch’s nomination by filibuster, and the Republicans used the nuclear option.
This is sort of the end of the line here. There’s no more steps for the Senate to take unless it moves on to the legislative filibuster. They’ve gone the full nine yards now and we’re down to a 51-vote majority for any future judge, whether it be Supreme Court, appellate or district judge.
What are the next steps for Neil Gorsuch being a justice and getting to work?
He will be sworn in, that’s a minor step. Usually there’s two swearing in ceremonies — one at the court conducted by the court, and a ceremonial swearing in at the White House. Then he can get right to work. The court meets next a week from Friday for their Friday Conference and Justice Gorsuch will join them. The court comes back for its final two-week sitting, the final sitting of the 2016 term, on Monday, April 17. Justices will hear cases and Justice Gorsuch will sit in on those cases and participate in the decision-making. The likelihood is he will have one, and probably only one, decision to write himself out of that sitting, and that will be his first opinion as a Supreme Court justice.
What is something you wish more people knew about the Supreme Court?
From a civics point of view, I wish more people knew the Supreme Court justices better than they do. Only a small percentage of Americans can name even one, much less eight or nine justices.
From a reporting point of view, I guess I wish people would recognize that covering the Supreme Court is a process of covering the decisions and petitions and briefs more than it is covering the actual justices. That is somewhat a regret of mine — that we don’t have greater access to the justices, that they don’t speak more to reporters, and that they don’t speak more in public. They’re all very careful about what they say and do in public, and I think it would be helpful if readers remembered that it makes our job a little more difficult in bringing them to life. Because once they put on those robes and become justices, they are public figures but they are not very well-defined public figures.
Are there any solutions to transparency at the Supreme Court that you would support? Whether it’s cameras in the courtroom or live audio streams of arguments, that might answer some of those questions of personality and greater understanding.
Yes! Yes! Yes! All of the above. I don’t think you can be a reporter and not be in favor of greater access — and not just for we reporters, but also for the public. Allowing cameras in is the ultimate. But short of cameras — and I don’t see why we need to be saying anything short of cameras — there’s live audio, audio later that same day, some of the ethics issues having to do with financial disclosures and justices telling us why they recuse themselves from cases rather than having us having to guess why they’re recusing themselves. All of that stuff that would make the court more transparent would be good.
There is an argument that live cameras would be bad. And I understand that point of view. Bad in the sense that lawyers and justices won’t be themselves and would be too aware that people are watching them. And they’ll be very aware that late night comedy television, for instance, could take three words that they say out of a sixty second dissertation and make them look silly. My feeling though is it’s inevitable. One of these decades — unfortunately we’re probably still talking in decades — it’s going to happen. And everyone will get over it. Presumably justices and lawyers will revert to being themselves and that will be that.
In all regards it would help reporters and the general public to be able to see the court more freely. I just think it’s the right thing to do.