Political junkies looking for books this season might turn to the Washington Post online and The Fix’s best political books of 2014. Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice is named. A more personal boost along these lines came when I was at the Post Office this weekend with batches of gifts and cookies, and a stack of cards that I hope makes it before Thursday. A longtime friend, also a journalist, happened to be in line. We hadn’t seen each other for awhile and I was thrilled to catch sight of her. “I’m sending your book to an old college roommate,” she cried, holding up a box and equally charmed by the coincidence. For my part, as wonderful as it is to draw new readers, an unexpected encounter with an old one at the holiday season feels just right.
On stormy winter weeks like this, when events in the Northeast are canceled (see you in February, Westfield State!), it’s nice to be reminded of recent trips to Florida. The Tampa Bay Times Book Festival and Miami Book Fair International were spent amid palm trees and friendly faces. And if I had known that writing a book about our first Latina Supreme Court justice would land me an interview with Fusion’s Jorge Ramos, I would have done it sooner. See link for Sotomayor and salsa.
I went to work on Monday, just as Breaking In was about to be released, thinking I’d have a busy, but nicely paced day. Reuters was posting an excerpt and I’d agreed to do an afternoon twitter-chat on it. Not my thing but, I thought, why not? I wanted to talk about Justice Sotomayor and maybe there would be something to say about the new Court term. At the end of the day, I was to speak at the bookstore Politics & Prose. I should have no trouble getting to that at 7 p.m., I thought.
Promoting its “In Depth” TV program on my latest book, C-SPAN links to this website. And I realized that although the site has been updated with Breaking In: the Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, my last blog entry is from January 2012. So here’s an update for those who took the time to click on the C-SPAN link and who also want to find out about the upcoming Book TV session. I’m still reporting on the Supreme Court (for Reuters since February 2012), mainly with long-range projects, analyses, and new editing responsibilities. I’m still writing books on the side, too. This latest is a story about two forces that merged providentially—the large ambitions of a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx and the increased political presence of Hispanics in the United States. Like my Antonin Scalia biography, American Original, this political history of Sotomayor’s 2009 Supreme Court nomination is published by Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. We’re fortunate C-SPAN is devoting its three-hour monthly book program to it on Oct. 5. As regular viewers know, An author fields calls for most of that time. C-SPAN also shows video of where the author writes. For me, it is in a second-floor spare bedroom and a first-floor den, mainly late at night and on weekends, amid stacks of documents, notebooks, tapes, CDs, and reference books. Toward the end of these projects, as I hunt through materials for elusive end-note citations, my research spills into other rooms of the house. Friends and relatives who visit during these crunch periods can be traumatized; my husband and daughter have learned to live with it, knowing that I actually have a system. When C-SPAN showed up last week, I’d cleaned up most everything. But I did have to keep the thorough, persistent producer from that spare bedroom. She asked to film, at least, the stairs heading up to it. I relented but not before I ran up to close all doors. Please call in on Oct. 5. Ask me about anything, except what lurks inside.
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.
As state legislatures have increasingly used sophisticated computers to draw voting maps configured to their political interests, districts have taken on odder shapes and prompted cracks about Rorschach ink blots. Friday’s Supreme Court decision in the Texas voting rights case offered its own kind of Rorschach test.
They may be known by their 5-4 decisions, but when it comes to outside criticism, the nine justices of the Supreme Court close ranks. Chief Justice John Roberts made headlines this weekend by defending his colleagues’ recusal choices, implicitly decisions by Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Clarence Thomas to participate in the health-care litigation. See story.
Roberts’s endorsement of his fellow justices came in the annual report on the federal judiciary, a typically dreary document that rarely draws much press or public attention. (I do remember, however, Chief Justice William Rehnquist making similar headlines in the late 1990s when he blasted the Senate for delaying judicial nominations.)
As I’ve be researching the years of nomination politics that led up to Sonia Sotomayor’s historic appointment as the first Hispanic justice, I’ve been reminded that appointments to top federal courts require not only top qualifications but an ability to maneuver in a sometimes ruthless system dominated by grudges and score-settling.
I’ve thought of this most recently in light of Tuesday’s scheduled Senate vote on whether to cut off debate and hold a straight up-or-down tally on Caitlin Halligan, formerly the New York state solicitor general, for a seat on the Washington, D.C.-based federal appeals court. (Cloture – which ends debate — requires a three-fifths majority, 60 votes; approval of a nominee needs only a simple majority, 51 votes.)
The Supreme Court press corps has SO been waiting for this case. The constitutional test of President Obama’s health-care law is now at the nation’s highest court. (See story.) And we are no longer at the margins of the news in this run-up to the 2012 presidential election. On Monday, even though reporters expected only a one-page order related to the petitions granted, several TV cameras were set up in front of the marble-columned building and the press room was crowded. We didn’t want to just see the order on a computer screen. We wanted it in our hands.
It was a coincidence that on Tuesday morning before we went up to the courtroom for the police GPS-tracking arguments, some of us in the Supreme Court press corps were talking about how rarely the outcome of a case catches us off guard.
The subject came up as we chatted about the fact that the justices were about to issue their first opinion of the term and the chance a ruling might present news that competed with the GPS arguments. (See story) We knew it was a small chance. This early in the term, it’s rare to see a big, consequential ruling. And none of us thought any of the cases heard so far would produce a blockbuster.