Inside the Times: What It’s Like Covering the Supreme Court

From a Times Insider column by Katie Van Syckle headlined “Following the Beat of the Court”:

Adam Liptak, who covers the United States Supreme Court for The Times, has had an unconventional journey to his current job — but it’s that same journey that suits him so well for the role. He started at the newspaper in 1984 as what was then called a copy boy, an entry-level position that involved fetching coffee and distributing paper copies of wire-service stories to editors around the newsroom. After about a year, he went to Yale Law School, and in 1992 he returned to work in The Times’s corporate legal department. A decade later, he joined the newsroom as the national legal reporter and then moved to the Supreme Court beat in 2008. Here he talks about his career path, what he misses about practicing law — very little — and how he approaches the court’s docket each term.

How would you describe your beat?

I try to distill and translate complex legal materials into something like accessible prose, often on a very tight deadline. And I try to give a realistic picture of the Supreme Court, taking account of the political context and practical consequences of its decisions.

Did you always want to be a journalist? What attracted you to it?

I guess I’ve always wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Lots of things attracted me to the job: its romance, its speed, its impact, the occasional opportunity for mischief, the chance to shine a light on injustice and the basic job of providing information to citizens in a democracy.

I understand you first worked as a copy boy for The Times, then as a lawyer for The Times and then became the national legal correspondent.

I worked on my college newspaper, and that led to a job as a nightside copy boy in the old Times building on 43rd Street, in the era when we used pneumatic tubes to send edited copy to the composing room. It was a menial job, but I helped cover a libel trial and wrote a handful of articles for the paper and an essay for The Times Magazine about playing air guitar.

After about a year, I went to law school with the vague idea that I would work my way back to journalism. I then took a 14-year detour into practicing law, specializing in First Amendment issues, first at a law firm and then in the Times Company’s corporate legal department. I followed a piece of advice a judge had once given me: Hang around the hoop, and hope someone gives you the ball.

How did you end up back in the newsroom?

I had spent a decade giving legal advice to reporters and editors, and I had done some freelance writing for The Book Review, the magazine and what was then known as the Week in Review. But I was surprised and delighted when Howell Raines, then The Times’s executive editor, asked me to be the national legal reporter.

Was it an easy transition?

It was terrifying. I had never written on deadline, had no sources and had no idea about how to conduct an interview. It was like a waking anxiety dream that lasted about six months. Then I started to get the hang of it.

Is there anything you miss about practicing law?

Almost nothing. What I enjoyed most about my old job was legal research and writing briefs, and that is not terribly different from what I do now.

How do you approach the Supreme Court docket each term? How do you decide what cases cover?

The blockbusters are obvious, and so are the duds. As for the cases in the middle, my default mode is to cover them and look for angles to give readers some sense of the larger themes that run through the court’s work.

You also write a column, Sidebar. What kind of cases and stories are you drawn to for that column?

The Supreme Court press corps is full of talented and experienced reporters who are often writing versions of the same stories about the same developments. My column, which has run since 2007, is a chance to do something more distinctive: to write with a little more voice and perspective about some of the quirky, intriguing or infuriating aspects of the justice system. I’ve written, for instance, about jailhouse lawyers whose work led to Supreme Court victories, about political polarization on federal appeals courts and among Supreme Court clerks, and about inmates who spend decades in solitary confinement.

What is your daily routine like?

My work routine follows the Supreme Court’s schedule, which these days has become quite unpredictable. The justices usually hear arguments about six days a month, and now that they are back on the bench I usually attend those in person even though the court started providing live audio during the pandemic. I also cover orders granting and denying review, decisions in argued cases and developments on what critics call the court’s shadow docket, which can include major rulings issued late at night.

If you could take on another beat at The Times, what would it be and why?

I sometimes miss my old job as national legal reporter, when I got to pick my shots and write stories about things no one else was covering, involving real people and illuminating novel legal questions. That was a real newspaper job. These days, for the most part, nine people in robes pick my stories.

Katie Van Syckle is a senior staff editor at The New York Times.

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