Last week’s decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the case that upheld the Affordable Care Act, was one of the most widely anticipated Supreme Court judgments in years.
But since cameras are forbidden in the courtroom and audio recordings are only available after a delay, we could not tune to a live broadcast when the decision was announced. The next best thing, perhaps surprisingly to everyone but lawyers and law students, turned out to be SCOTUSblog.com.
Tom Goldstein and his wife Amy Howe founded the blog in 2002 to comprehensively and objectively cover the nation’s highest court. Their current staff is over 20 people. Bloomberg Law sponsors the endeavor, which is run as a public service.
The site is usually lucky to get a few thousand readers on a live blog. On Thursday, it had 344,000 readers at 10 am Eastern time, when the justices began announcing decisions. Its peak number of viewers that morning reached around 866,000. (The blog's staff only expected about 250,000.)
It wasn’t for nothing that the staff of SCOTUSblog referred to the health care decision as its Olympics. They began live-blogging at 8:45 am, taking questions from readers until the court began announcing decisions. At that point, a great deal of the country - including President Obama, who White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last Wednesday would be among the blog’s booming viewership - was waiting eagerly for reporter Lyle Denniston.
Denniston, who is 81, acquired a celebrity of his own in the past few weeks. He seemed bemused but flattered when, in an interview with Yahoo! News, he learned that admiring fellow journalists had attempted to make him a trending topic on Twitter. Denniston did, however, express his fondness for the collaborative nature of blogging, saying, “It's not the same dog-eat-dog competition feel you have in the newspaper business.”
Denniston’s speed and his experience - he has covered the Supreme Court for various outlets for the past 54 years - make him an institution in judicial reporting. Goldstein told The Washington Post that he expected information from Denniston about 25 seconds after the reporter had the decision in hand. Once they received the information over the phone, the blog had seven staff members and four attorneys ready to tackle the complex ruling.
Though CNN broke the news first, as NPR pointed out, SCOTUSblog was the first to break the news accurately. (In their rush to be first to air, both CNN and Fox News initially got the story wrong. CNN apologized; Fox, weirdly, sought to justify its error. Suggestion for a new slogan: “We report. You decide if we’re right.”)
Beyond fast and accurate reporting, the blog also offers analysis on the high court’s decisions. Denniston wrote both a guide for reading the ruling, primarily aimed at those who don’t often read Supreme Court decisions, and an analysis once the decision had been announced. The blog continued covering reactions to the announcement live until nearly 4 p.m. Eastern time. Like everything the blog publishes, both the live blog and the analysis will remain easily accessible in the site’s archives.
Though Goldstein and his team do not expect the spike in their audience to last, they seem pleased by their 15 minutes of fame. They have a right to enjoy it. SCOTUSblog epitomizes good court reporting, no matter how many people are looking. Goldstein, Howe, Denniston and the rest of the staff should be proud of their hard work last week, but that work is the rule, not the exception.
When the whole country looked for a window onto the Supreme Court, SCOTUSblog made sure that window was as wide and clear as possible.