Interview: Adam Liptak // Thursday, March 15, 2018

Adam Liptak is the Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times. He was previously a NYT lawyer and national legal correspondent.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. My questions appear in bold, and Mr. Liptak’s answers are in plain text.

When you were in high school, were you already interested in journalism?

If we had a high school paper, I wasn’t on it. I do remember even back then reading the New York Times. My mother was a high school English teacher at my high school in Stamford, Connecticut, and she would get a copy of the Times in the faculty lounge. I remember going in there to read it. But it probably wasn’t until college that I started writing for the school papers.

You went to Yale for both college and law school, right?
I did. I started undergrad at Columbia and transferred to Yale, so I wrote a little bit for the Columbia Spectator. I was also an editor of the Yale Daily News magazine, which was a kind of Village Voice-like alternative publication. Most of what I did wasn’t really reporting — it was sort of essays and rock criticism and stuff like that. But I got a kick out of writing.

How did you like law school?

I liked it a lot. For your purposes, let me pause between college and law school, because I did work as a copy boy at the New York Times. Which was an entry-level position that doesn’t really exist anymore. That’s where I got a first glimpse of a very serious newsroom, and serious journalistic culture. And that seemed like something I might want to return to. But I went off to law school and liked it a lot. I thought it was intellectually stimulating and became really interested in the First Amendment. That caused me for fourteen years to go off and be basically a libel lawyer at a Wall Street law firm called Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and then in-house at the New York Times’ company’s legal department.

What kind of work were you involved in at the Times’ legal department?

I reviewed articles pre-publication for libel and other problems. At the time, the New York Times Co. was a sprawling media conglomerate with maybe twenty local newspapers and the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune. So there was a lot of work. We’ve shrunk considerably since when I was there. I also helped reporters get access to information through the Freedom of Information Act and other kinds of mechanisms. And when prosecutors and others tried to subpoena reporters for their information, I helped reporters resist that stuff.

I definitely want to come back to your time as a copy boy. Was it mostly clerical, or did you get to help the reporters in their work?
It was mostly clerical work. You know, it was as silly as getting coffee for people or walking wire copy around. You know, the AP and other wire services didn’t arrive by computers but arrived in kind of teletype printouts, and you’d walk those from desk to desk. But I also wrote a little bit. I was asked by a real New York Times reporter named Myron Farber to help cover a big libel trial that General William Westmoreland had brought against CBS News. So for a month or two I would go to court every day and assist Myron. That probably helped persuade me that First Amendment law was something I was interested in.

Do you ever have young people, perhaps in a copyboy role, assist you in your reporting?

Sure, once in a while. I confess I’m a little bit of a loner, and the stuff that I do is so technical that I’m nervous about handing off too much of it. The copyboy position doesn’t exist anymore, but we have clerks and young reporters whom I’ve worked closely with. And the culture at the Times is for people to start out as mentees and turn into mentors. You pass down the professional norms and the lore of the place over generations

What advice did Linda Greenhouse give you before you took over the Supreme Court beat in 2008?

She always read the dissent first. She said if you read the dissent first, you have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the decision. Because the majority opinion will sometimes try to paper over what it’s actually doing, and the dissent will often call out the majority decision. I thought that was excellent advice.

That’s really interesting. So when a big case comes out, and you have a short time to get it up on the website, what’s your plan of action after reading the dissent?

I guess I take several steps. If it’s a really big case, I will have pre-written various versions and I will publish something that will contain a lede that says little more than who won and who lost. And then I will very quickly try to add a vote count and maybe a quote from the majority and the dissent. All of that will take twenty minutes or half an hour. Once I start to read, I will very often start with the dissent.

How has your writing style changed in the 16 years since you became a Times writer?

You know, I fear that it has not improved. I just happened to be looking at an article I wrote in 2006, when I was still the national legal reporter before I started covering the court. That’s when I would write more features reported from the field. I thought that old piece was quite well-written. And when I’m writing about the Supreme Court, it’s such an effort to take technical, jargon-filled material and turn it into something readable, that if you’ve achieved that, you’re in pretty decent shape journalistically. But I can’t say — I often think that it allows me to do my best writing.

How hard was it to transition from freelance writing to more deadline-based articles?

It was scary. I started on the national desk at the NYT without a lot of journalism background. I didn’t have any sources, I didn’t have a good idea of how long it takes to write 700 words or how much reporting you needed to do to generate 700 words. I thought I brought some talent to the job. I flatter myself to think I’m a pretty clean writer. I’m pretty good at reading legal materials. But journalism requires a lot of stuff, including speed. And so my first six months on the job were kind of scary, but I think I got the hang of it.

Who do you typically consult for your articles?

I very often don’t go to outside experts for commentary because the materials at the court themselves are rich enough that I’m not sure the outside voices add that much. But when I do consult people, they tend to be law professors. Occasionally they’re Supreme Court advocates. They tend to be people who have established expertise in an area — often people who have blogs on specialized areas like election law or sentencing law.

How often do you write about something completely unrelated to the law, just to get your head out of that sphere?

Very, very seldom. Once in a long while the Book Review or the Arts section will ask me to write something, but even that will be vaguely law-related. I recently got a feature piece about the movie on Thurgood Marshall called “Marshall,” and that allowed me to draw on some slightly different skills. But even then, I’m kind of typecast as a law guy.

Which law blogs do you read most frequently?

I’ve started to rely a little more on Twitter than on actually checking out blogs, but I go to SCOTUSblog for sure. I like a blog by a Pennsylvania appellate lawyer named Howard Bashman called How Appealing. I look at the Volokh Conspiracy and then, depending on what’s going on, I may spend a lot of time looking at specialized blogs if that’s where the action is at that particular time. But checking in with blogs rather than subscribing to their Twitter feeds has short of shifted, and I now have a highly curated Twitter feed that I feel like lets me keep up with most everything I need to know.

Out of all the Justices you’ve covered, which ones have been the best writers?

Out of all the justices I’ve covered, the three best writers are Justice Scalia, the Chief Justice, and Justice Kagan. In the case of Roberts and Kagan, it’s partly due to clarity and conversational style. So they make a real effort in a complicated case to explain it well. And then they make their points in deft, crisp, conversational English. Scalia, at his best, is probably the best writer of the three of them. He was a memorable stylist with a real gift for fresh images.

How often do you attend oral arguments, and what’s your routine? 

I like to go to as many arguments as I can. I think it’s a great opportunity to 1) get into the case, 2) see some very good advocacy, and 3) see the Justices speaking extemporaneously and seeing their habits of mind at work. I’d say I probably go to little more than half of them. I take notes, but except in the very few cases where I feel a need to write immediately as soon as the argument is over, I’m really taking them to remind myself of what to look for in the transcript. You get transcripts within hours of the conclusion of the argument. Given how hard it is to take accurate notes of extended exchanges, often with cross-talk, I rely on the transcript whenever I can. So in a way I’m just making notes to myself, saying, “here’s this word you should search for in the transcript.”

How do you feel about the Supreme Court allowing cameras in the courtroom, and when might it happen?

It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. The Court is very happy not to have cameras. My personal view: there’s no principled reason to exclude citizens from the opportunity to see their government at work in a public setting. If you’re going to allow 400 people in the room, I don’t know why you can’t allow camera coverage. I think the Justices don’t want it because they like their privacy, they don’t want to be recognized at the supermarket, and they don’t want to be made fun of on late night television. I don’t think those are principled reasons.

You’ve called the SCOTUS confirmation process dishonest, borderline perjurious, and an overall flawed situation. How do you think it could be improved?

I have no good ideas. I think the confirmation process is kind of a monthslong opportunity for the Senate interest groups and the press to take a good hard look at the nominee. And that’s going to happen whether you have confirmation hearings or not. The hearings seem to me to be mostly an empty ritual. But nonetheless, they convey something. You get a sense of what the nominee is like on his or her feet. I feel like we got to know, for instance, Justice Gorsuch much better by the conclusion of his hearings than we had before they started. So I think there’s a value there. There’s a value also in just taking the temperature of the country. It’s sort of a constitutional conversation in the sense that different topics will be at the top of people’s minds at any given time, and it’s interesting to see whether the Senate is focused on executive power, or the Commerce Clause or abortion or whatever it is. I don’t think there’s a lot of value in confirmation hearings, but it’s north of zero.

Speaking of confirmation hearings, Justice Gorsuch’s was obviously the most recent one. Has he met your expectations over the past year?

I’m not sure I had specific expectations, and it’s too early for me to say. He’s gotten some mixed reviews in the press for how assertive he’s been early on. Some people, including some who admired his writing on the 10th Circuit, don’t love his writing on the Supreme Court. But he just got here. It’ll take time for him to settle.

Before, you were talking about empty rituals. So I’m also curious about your thoughts on Justices attending or not attending the State of the Union.

I haven’t given that a ton of thought. On the one hand, having the three branches of government together may send a positive message. On the other hand, the justices freely admit that it puts them into an awkward position, where they have to decide whether to stand or sit, applaud or not, sometimes on the spur of the moment. Justice Alito famously got quite perturbed when President Obama in 2010 attacked the Court at the State of the Union Address over the Citizens United decision, which had just been decided. That made for an awkward tableau. So I don’t know. It’s a mixed thing.

Why do you think the Court leaks so much less than any other branch of government?

I’ll speculate. It’s partly size, permanence, institutional loyalty, and the fact that in the political branches, various factions can advance their agendas by leaking to the press. It’s a little harder to see how that would happen at the Supreme Court. You’re very seldom going to be in a position to pick up a vote, say, by leaking something to a reporter. Now sometimes you do see more candor from the court with books, and book writers will sometimes get access to information that brings historical cases into focus. There you can see the agenda might be to see sort of clean up somebody’s legacy. But in the moment, I don’t think anybody has much reason to want to leak. The clerks are terrified, and the justices have nothing to gain.

In your time covering the court, which junior justice has made the most impact on the quality of the public cafeteria?
[laughs] The only thing I know about the cafeteria is that Justice Kagan got a frozen yogurt machine installed. Or so I hear — I’m not sure if I’ve ever even seen it. But that’s everything I know about the cafeteria committee.

When do you feel comfortable making a prediction in a case?
When I walk out of an argument, I’d say 80% of the time I have a pretty good feel for where it’s going, and maybe 50% of the time I’ll put an indication of that into my story. And I’m not sure I have a hard-and-fast rationale for when I do and when I don’t. By the time you’ve read the briefs, seen the argument, heard the questions, and know that the Court is in general more likely to rule for the petitioner by a ⅔ margin, you have a lot of information about how to make the judgement.

If you could find out the ruling of any case this term ahead of time, what would it be? Masterpiece Cakeshop. That’s the case people really care about. I was saying that I feel pretty confident in my predictions, but I don’t know how that one’s going to come out.

Are you confident about Gill v. Whitford? I’m pretty stumped on that one.

No, I’m not confident. Not confident. But I am leaning toward Kennedy recognizing the possibility of a manageable standard for deciding what is unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. I’m not super confident, but I am leaning toward 60 or 70%. I think he may be ready to do that.

What is the most important non-blockbuster case this term?

Probably the workplace arbitration case. I think the Court is likely to make it harder for workers to go into court to litigate workplace questions and, as with consumers, they’ll be forced to go to arbitration. That’s going to be a major move, and it probably won’t get the attention it deserves.

Are there any books you’d recommend for high schoolers interested in the Supreme Court?

I think Jeff Toobin’s books, particularly The Nine, are very good. Noah Feldman’s book called Scorpions about the Supreme Court slightly longer ago is terrific. And Simple Justice, a book about Brown v. Board of Education, is also really terrific.

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