I’ve been fortunate as a reporter to have had three terrific beats in Washington: covering legal affairs on Capitol Hill for Congressional Quarterly, reporting on the Supreme Court for the Washington Post, and now covering it for USA Today. I’m about to switch to Reuters for a newly created legal-affairs job that I hope becomes the best of all.
Yet as I take stock, it occurs to me that a great bonus of the Court beat has been the colleagues. Journalists who come to the Supreme Court stay practically for life, like the justices. Right now there’s an especially tight group, interested in each other’s work, regularly discussing trends, watching each other’s back – well, up to a point. We’re still a competitive lot.
The beat tends to draw a different type of reporter. We’re all a bit bookish, with bad eyes and a penchant for yellow highlighters. We can laugh wildly at some joke filled with jargon that would fall flat outside the marble. We know as much about Teague v. Lane as Bush v. Gore. We favor predictability and patterns, which likely keeps us on a beat where everything happens at the same time each day. If the Court starts at 10:02 a.m. rather than right at 10:00, we’re bound to begin speculating on which justice was late to the Robing Room.
Once the nine leave the bench for lunch together, we have our own routines. Two of us eat at the same joint almost every day, rarely varying our orders. We go to the same conferences every year. We keep the same roles, substantive and social. We know who sits on the Moot Court and who finds the best restaurant in town. A few of us stay in such regular email contact that if one of us suddenly disappears for a couple of days, for any old reason, one of us is bound to write the others and ask what’s up. I’m not vanishing now, just expanding the beat and watching for legal trends at Justice, the White House and on Capitol Hill, too. I’ll still show up for some oral arguments, and when I do, I’ll be eyeing the clock just like the regulars.