New York Times Supreme Court Reporter
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
Following is a log of an online discussion on the Supreme Court. Joining Scholastic from Washington, DC was Linda Greenhouse, a Supreme Court Reporter for The New York Times.
Thanks for joining Scholastic's electronic community. We hope you enjoy your online visit!
The Supreme Court recently began it's latest term with a new justice, Stephen Breyer, replacing Harry Blackmun. Is it too early to ask whether you've noticed any difference with Breyer's joining the Court?
By the way, is there any story behind the Court's tradition of starting every new session on the first Monday in October?
Felicia Halpert, Scholastic.com
Subj: Re: Greetings from Washington DC: 94-10-10 06:30:19 EST From: NIMJ
I'm delighted to have a chance to talk to students who might be curious about the Supreme Court, one of our most important but also most mysterious government institutions. I'm typing this Monday morning from home, before I head up to the Court. The Court is actually closed today for the Columbus Day holiday, but I have lots of homework to do in my little office in the press room, so that's where I'll be.
The Court session began last Monday, the traditional First Monday in October. In the old days, the Court had several sessions a year. Now they are in continual session from October through June, but the term is still formally known as the "October Term," reflecting the long-ago time when there were others terms starting in January, March, etc. The most notable change when the Court gathered last Monday was the fact that a new Justice, Stephen Breyer, was sitting at the far end of the bench in the seat reserved for the newest Justice. He asked a lot of thoughtful questions and I think will be a very vigorous and interesting addition to the Court. I'm looking forward to answering your questions, from my home computer when I get home later today. /Linda Greenhouse
Subj: Hello Linda from Ohio 94-10-10 11:51:50 EST From: JimGrealis
The Supreme Court is certainly a mysterious institution. We do know so very little about it.
A couple of questions from my junior high class that we would like to present to you :
1. How are cases presented in the Supreme Court? I think most students think it is like what they see on t.v.- ex. the Simpson Trial .
2. What do you see as the most important case that may be upcoming for the Supreme Court this year? ( We know that every case that reaches is very significant)
3. This month we have been able to question a Senator, an Aide to Sen. Kennedy, a media expert and the Senate and House Historians. In each case we wanted to know about what kind of time and demands went with the job. What can you tell us about the schedule that a Supreme Court Justice might follow? Thanks Mr. G's class-Ohio
Subj: Conservative/Liberal 94-10-10 12:24:23 EST From: JimGrealis
Given that the Supreme Court can change over time. How would you characterize the present Justices as to being conservative or liberal? We are not going to hold you to your reply. Were just curious how you would see each of them. Mr. Grealis and Mr. Moore
Subj: Re:To Jim Grealis's class 94-10-10 17:45:04 EST From: NIMJ
The Supreme Court in session doesn't look much at all like the O.J. Simpson trial. There is no jury. There are no witnesses. The parties who are most directly affected by the case may or may not be there, and if they are there, they're back in the audience. All that you see is two lawyers making their arguments to the nine Justices—one-half hour per side, usually two and sometimes three cases a day. This is a typical scene, by the way, in an appeals court.
To answer your next question, certainly one of the most important cases of the term involves term limits. Can the states limit the number of terms that the members of Congress elected from that state may serve? This is a purely Constitutional question. The Constitution sets the qualifications for membership in Congress—for example, a Representative must be at least 25 years old, a Senator 30 years old. The Constitution says nothing about the number of terms they may serve. So, can states set their own limits? Can they go beyond the Constitution? The Court has never directly addressed this question. Earlier this year, the Arkansas Supreme Court said no, and struck down the term limits that the Arkansas voters had adopted by referendum. The state's appeal will be heard by the Justices next month. This is a hot issue because more than a dozen states are voting this year on whether to adopt term limits.
About my own work day—I spend much of each day in the Court, either in the courtroom listening to arguments, or in my little corner of the press room, where I have a desk, phone, files, etc. I do my "homework" there—reading cases and preparing the background for my articles. I do my writing downtown in the Times Washington Bureau, where we have (of course) a computer set up. There are about 40 reporters in our bureau, covering every aspect of the national government.
Subj: Re:Conservative/Liberal 94-10-10 17:47:30 EST From: NIMJ
I view this Court as moderately conservative. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are the most conservative. Chief Justice Rehnquist is quite conservative, as are Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy in many respects. On the moderately liberal side are Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the newest Justice, Stephen Breyer. None of the "liberals" are as liberal as the most conservative Justices are conservative.
Subj: JimGrealis from Linda 94-10-10 20:48:52 EST From: NIMJ
To Jim Grealis from Linda Greenhouse: I need to ask you whether you are related to my neighbor, Bill Grealis, who is also from Ohio.
Subj: SUPREME COURT 94-10-11 12:14:07 EST From: JamesG1335
Mrs. Lewis's 5th grade class would like to post some questions about the Supreme Court. Our class is in Montana, pretty far from Washington D.C.so it's nice to be able to go to a knowledgable source. Question 1: Why are Supreme Court judges appointed for life?
Question 2: Do you think this appointment for life is an affective system?
Question 3: Do you think the new Supreme Court justice is conservative or liberal?
Question 4: How will his views influence future court rulings?
Question 5: Have you ever personally uncovered any corruption or illegal activity?
Question 6: Do you go to political conventions and if so, what is it like?
Question 7: Where do you get your most interesting stories?
Question 8: What is the longest term a justice has ever served.
Question 9: What is the average length of a Supreme Court case?
Thanks for your time.
Subj: To Mrs. Lewis's 5th grade 94-10-11 18:38:47 EST From: NIMJ
Let me take your questions one at a time.
1. Life tenure for Supreme Court Justices and other Federal judges is written into the Constitution. The goal of the framers was to protect judicial independence, so judges could make their decisions without having to be afraid that they could be fired or not reappointed.
2. By and large, this has been an excellent system. Just compare what has happened in states where state court judges have to run for office or can face recall by the voters if their rulings are unpopular. I think that's a poor way to ensure justice.
3. I would call Justice Stephen Breyer moderately liberal. That's just a guess; he hasn't written any Supreme Court decisions yet, but he had a lot of decisions on the Federal appeals court in Boston, where he served as chief judge.
4. I think Justice Breyer will be influential because he is highly intelligent, very well prepared, and respected by the other Justices, so they will listen to what he has to say. He isn't particularly ideological, so his views will be heard and accepted on their merits.
5. No, I haven't uncovered corruption or illegal activity -- that's not too likely on the Supreme Court beat. Sometimes I write about what I think is bad judgment -- but that's a matter of opinion!
6. Before I covered the Court, I used to cover politics in New York state and I did go to state political conventions -- never to a national convention. It was really very exciting. I think politics is great fun and it was fun being a political reporter.
7. In my current job, I get my stories from watching all the cases that come before the Court and picking out the interesting ones to write about. In our legal system, just about everything that could possibly be bothering someone ends up as a court case, and some of the most interesting of those make it to the Supreme Court. So I never lack for good material -- what I lack is the time to pursue them all.
8. I'm at my home computer and don't have my office research materials here, but several Justices have served for decades, including John Marshall, the great Chief Justice of the early 1800's, and more recently, Justice William O. Douglas and Justice William J. Brennan, who was appointed in the mid 1950's and retired in 1990.
9. Each case is argued for one hour, or 30 minutes to a side (with rare exception). If you mean, how long is the average decision, they range from 5 or 6 pages to more than 100 pages sometimes with numerous concurring and dissenting opinions.
Thank you, Mrs. Lewis's class, for your interest. I hope you all get to visit the Court someday, as well as the other attractions of this very beautiful city.
Subj: From Linda Greenhouse 94-10-11 18:41:06 EST From: NIMJ
I will be out of town and away from my computer on Wednesday night, so it will be Thursday before I get to any newly posted questions. But I will get to them all, so I hope you have some more.
Subj: TV 94-10-11 19:02:12 EST From: RonAdams2
Seventh graders here in Quincy, MA want to know if the Supreme Court will ever be televised LIVE, like the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are ?
Who are the artists who paint the pictures of the Supreme Court that we see on the TV news ? Why don't they allow still cameras ? Why sketch artists ? Isn't that old fashioned ?
Students of the Broad Meadows School, Quincy, MA
Subj: Greenhouse 94-10-11 20:42:50 EST From: JTSmls
What are they doing in Iraq when we have missles on the floor of the ocean?
Subj: Re:TV in Court 94-10-12 05:11:33 EST From: NIMJ
Federal judges as a whole, and the Court particularly, remain opposed to TV even as nearly every state court system has decided to permit cameras in the courtroom. The Supreme Court's position is hard to understand, because as an appeals court, it hears cases without a jury and without witnesses, so the negative influence of TV that is often cited in criminal trials can't possibly be a problem. After thinking about this situation for a long time, I've decided that it simply comes down to the fact that the Justices like their privacy. They don't want to be on television because they don't want to be recognized as they go about their daily lives -- and TV turns everyone into celebrities. Right now, the Justices have a considerable amount of privacy -- they can walk around the Supreme Court building without being recognized by tourists. The TV sketch artists are hired by the television networks, which want to give viewers at least a sense of what the proceedings look like. I think they are very talented. I've watched them work and am amazed at how quickly they can sketch faces and capture the scene. The work mostly in chalk. It certainly is old fashioned, but quite charming, I think.
Subj: Talking to the Justices 94-10-13 14:07:18 EST From: FeliciaEH
Do the reporters covering the Court have an opportunity to talk with the Justices? Often reporters get their background information from talking with not only the aides to elected officials, but the elected officials themselves, albeit sometimes off the record. Do you ever learn anything about the negotiations surrounding particular court cases from the Justices? Do they ever communicate with reporters at all?
Subj: Making decisions 94-10-13 14:25:30 EST From: FeliciaEH
Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how Supreme Court justices reach decisions. Is each individual case simply argued and then voted upon immediately afterwards? Or is there negotiating/politicking/arguing that goes on among the justices? If so, how does this play out? Have there been cases where the outcome was different than many anticipated because of a particular justice's negotiating skill?
Subj: Re:Talking to the Justices 94-10-13 17:12:31 EST From: NIMJ
I do sometimes have a chance to talk to some of the Justices, but these are essentially social conversations and not interviews. I have not discussed the background of decision making with any of the Justices and a question of that type would really be regarded as out of bounds. This is just one of the ways that covering the Supreme Court is different from covering other institutions of government.
Subj: Re:Making decisions 94-10-13 17:17:21 EST From: NIMJ
The Justices take a straw vote the week that a case is argued and the Chief Justice assigns some one the job of drafting an opinion that reflects the views of the majority. Sometimes, by the time the first draft is finished, one or more Justices have changed their mind or weigh in with their own amended versions. Once in a while, something that starts out as a dissent becomes a majority opinion. This process can take as little as a few weeks or as much as eight months. It is all done in secret. So I'm not sure about the type of negotiation that goes on. I think it gets pretty intense. Some Justices are known for their powers of persuasion, especially Justice Brennan, who retired in 1990.
Subj: Hey Linda 94-10-19 06:40:04 EST From: Scholas375
Technology vs. Privacy
Recently Scholastic Update magazine, asocial studies centered mag. for students in H.S., published an issue devoted to technology. In it they wrote of the difficulities there might be in the future of maintaining privacy with more and more records becoming electronically stored, the use of e-mail, cell. phones etc.
Has the Supreme Court reacted to this issue yet in any cases. If not do you forsee it happening soon? This class was amazed at how much information can be accessed today.
Mr. O'Grealish and class
Subj: Re:Technology/Privacy 94-10-19 07:12:44 EST From: NIMJ
I think this kind of privacy protection is going to have to come from Congress, not the courts. The Supreme Court has permitted access to personal records, such as bank records and records of phone numbers called, for law enforcement purposes, and I wouldn't expect computerized records to be treated any differently when that comes up. It has come up already in a few cases. Remember the Iran-contra affair? The e-mail communications of the Reagan Administration officials involved were available to the investigators. There's some litigation going on now over access to records stored on the hard drives of Federal computers. So it will certainly come up. Don't send an e-mail that you wouldn't want to see in print some day!
Subj: Fascinating Case 94-10-20 10:02:14 EST From: MarshallES
I have been fascinated by your accounts of the Supreme Court. Can you tell me about a case heard by the Supreme Court that has really fascinated you? That one case that you just can't forget?
Thank you for your time.
Subj: Re:Fascinating Case 94-10-20 19:50:33 EST From: NIMJ
It's hard to pick out just one, so I'll choose a recent one—last term's decision in a fascinating and unusual case from the village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a settlement of ultra-Orthodox Jews who had been permitted by the New York State Legislature to set up their own public school system. Most of the Kiryas Joel children are educated in private religious schools, but the public school district, which consisted of just one building, enabled the special needs children of the village to get their publicly funded IDEA services in a comfortable setting, rather than having to go the public school in the nearby town. The question for the Supreme Court was whether this arrangement violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by singling out a religious group for favored treatment. (the small district did not meet the state education law's standards for creating a new school district). The New York courts had declared the district unconstitutional and the Supreme Court agreed in a 6-3 decision by Justice Souter. It was an especially interesting case because while the general principles are familiar, the facts were so unusual and compelling. These children really did have special needs that undoubtedly were best accommodated in the setting the state had created -- and yet, the Court has to announce general rules and had been pretty clear about the barriers between church and state in the public school context. Dozens of interested groups filed impassioned friend-of-the-Court briefs, reflecting how much was at stake. The courtroom was packed for the argument. Many village residents came to hear the argument, and the Court gave the men special permission to keep their hats and long coats on in the courtroom. This was obviously a case that the Court was going to wrestle with, and the various concurring and dissenting opinions that were eventually produced make it clear that no one has yet had the last word on this issue. Well, that's just one case. I've been doing this job since 1978, so as you can imagine, I could fill quite a few screens with these kinds of musings. Thanks for asking.