Tony Mauro December 8, 2016
Tony Mauro with The National Law Journal has covered the Supreme Court for 36 years and he still thinks “it’s the best beat in town.” He spoke with SCOTUSDaily about potential reforms to the Supreme Court and why it’s a journalist’s professional duty to have strong opinions about making the court more transparent.
How has covering the Supreme Court changed since you started on the beat?
Well, it’s changed tremendously. It used to be that when a decision came down from the court, I would call up an expert or law professor who knew about the case. I asked for a comment, and half the time they would say, “Well, call me back in a couple days when my copy of the decision comes to me in the mail.” The only exception was if they were involved in the case and they would have somebody pick up a copy at the court and then fax it to them, wherever they were.
I can’t say I covered the court by candlelight or anything like that – I’m not that old. But the methods of transmission were just incredibly slow, and it was really kind of a Siberia beat for a lot of people. All the action was at the White House or Congress, and covering the Supreme Court was sort of a cerebral, monastic kind of beat with a lot of reading and not much fun. But I enjoyed it from Day One, and I still do.
What do you think might surprise people most about the Supreme Court?
Especially in the last few years, people have viewed the court as a more political institution just like all the rest. But, by and large, it’s not that political. It’s a very conscientious group of justices who are trying very hard to get it right. They are very collegial without the vicious culture that’s developed in the other two branches. Maybe I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but I think it’s a pretty strong and admirable institution.
Are there any changes or reforms that you would like to see at the Supreme Court?
I’m a big advocate for greater transparency, and some people think I’m antagonistic toward the court for that reason. But I feel like the proud father of a shy kid in the school play. In many ways, I want there to be more out in the public about the court because, generally speaking, the more the public knows the better they would feel about the court.
I know some of my colleagues think that they shouldn’t have opinions about these things, about transparency issues. But I think it’s our professional duty to have strong opinions about access issues. If we don’t beat the drums, nobody is going to for us and for the public.
When you say you want the court to be more transparent, what specific changes would you like to see to meet that end?
Obviously, I think putting cameras in the court is way overdue, and it’s ridiculous that it’s not allowed. Also greater transparency on the reasons for recusal, reasons for cert denials – the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom explains why they deny cases, and I don’t see why the U.S. Supreme Court couldn’t do the same. And also greater transparency about public appearances. The justices are very secretive about where they’re going, and then they pop up in odd places.
Can you tell me more about why you think it’s your duty as a journalist to be calling for more transparency?
Well, I took my cue from Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS anchor who is the epitome of impartiality. He once said that the only bias he allowed himself as a journalist was in favor of the First Amendment. That’s what I believe in, too.
I think it’s almost silly for reporters to think that they should be neutral on those kinds of issues…I don’t think readers would expect that we should be neutral. If we’re the public surrogate, we should have as much access as we can.
Is it possible that greater transparency can hurt more than it helps? That it can get in the way of the justices properly administering their rulings and opinions?
They do make that argument, and I think it’s a weak one. It is a public institution, and if they don’t like the visibility or the spotlight, then it’s maybe not the right job for them. The public deserves to see as much of the court as possible, and I honestly don’t think that greater transparency harms the court.
I’ll give you an example, and this goes way back to when Thurgood Marshall’s papers were released right after he died. There was a big uproar because he died so soon after he retired so a lot of his papers that were released were recent and had very fresh information about recent cases. In the end, I think that all of those papers that revealed a lot about the court actually put the court in a positive light, as a conscientious court.
I think the same goes for the broadcasting of the audio of oral arguments, that was also a very big issue a couple of decades ago. But now it’s become routine and, in a small way at least, it helps the public understand the court and puts the court in a positive light.
What do you think will be the impetus for change?
I used to say by the turn of the century we’ll have cameras in the court, and that’s come and gone. All I can hope for is that sometime in my lifetime, I’ll see a change like that.
Congress doesn’t seem to have the stomach to require the court to be more transparent – they are very timid about it. Rules calling for greater transparency always die in committee or after committee, so I guess all we can hope for is public pressure. Over time, we’ll realize that greater transparency isn’t harmful to what they do, and that is an asset for them.
It certainly has happened in the lower courts. I’ve talked to a lot of judges over the years about press coverage, and they used to complain about how bad the coverage is and now they’re complaining that the reporters have disappeared. They want the reporters to be there; they want coverage. That hasn’t quite spread to the Supreme Court, but maybe someday.
Who is your favorite Supreme Court justice?
Well, I have to say Justice Brennan. I didn’t know him well, but whenever I did meet with him, he was a tremendous, friendly, grandfatherly guy. He was also a great champion of First Amendment issues.
And, I’ll just tell you one little anecdote…I once accompanied my editor at USA Today to Justice Brennan’s chambers – we were giving him an award or something. As I said, I didn’t really know Justice Brennan that well, but he sized up the situation and saw that here I was, a young reporter with my boss. And so Brennan made a big fuss over me and told my editor how great I was. He didn’t have to do that, but it was very nice of him. I haven’t forgotten that.