Interview: Linda Greenhouse

Linda Greenhouse was the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times for nearly three decades. In 1998, she won the Pulitzer Prize “for her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court.” She has written four books, including a biography of Justice Blackmun and a memoir called “Just a Journalist.” She currently teaches at Yale Law School.

What kind of a teenager were you, and what were your interests?

I guess I was a kid who basically followed rules. I wasn’t a troublemaker-type teenager. I was editor of the high school newspaper, and my teachers liked me. I was interested in politics and public affairs, the Beatles, who were just coming along when I was in high school, and pop music. I also was into the cast albums of the great Broadway shows at that time.

When you were younger, were there any writers you tried to emulate?

By the time I was in college, there certainly were. I read the New York Times every day, and I noticed bylines. I even once wrote a fan letter to a New York Times reporter. So before college, I was reading books and so on, but I don’t think I was paying that much attention to bylines in the journalism that I read.

Which writers do you admire right now?

For fiction, I very much like Michael Chabon. In fact, I’m just now reading a recent novel of his. I like Barbara Kingsolver — I think I’ve read most of hers. I read the New Yorker every week, and I read the New York Review of Books. There are a lot of writers in those publications whom I admire.

Who did you a write a fan letter to?

It was Robert Lipsyte, who’s still around. He was a sportswriter, and his copy was just so engaging and colorful. This is when I was in college and I was interested in sports. And I just wrote a letter. He wrote back to me, and he told me that being a sportswriter was a very good thing to be because you got a lot of fresh air. [laughs] That’s what he told me.

After college, you interned for James Reston at the New York Times. How did you get that internship?

He had a kind of personal internship program, and the idea was that he’d hire someone right from a college newspaper. I was coming from the Harvard Crimson, so this was known. I applied, and he actually had not previously ever hired a woman. There were very few women in big-time journalism in those days. But the Vietnam War draft was on, and a couple of the guys he hired were drafted. There was no draft exemption working for James Reston. I think that opened him to hiring a woman, and he invited me down to Washington for an interview and hired me.

Being one of the only women, did you experience some imposter syndrome when you began working there?

No, I don’t think so. I wasn’t given anything to do that required any more heavy lifting than I had done working seven days a week for the Harvard Crimson. I was actually pretty well prepared. I didn’t know what would become of it — it was just a job for a year. I was hoping I would get to stay at the Times, but it didn’t come with any assurance of that. So I tried very hard to do a lot of outside writing so I would build up a portfolio of clips. It was kind of a pleasant surprise when the Times asked me to stay on as a junior metro reporter, and have more or less an official tryout for a real job. That’s how that happened.

Eventually the Times asked you to write about the Supreme Court, and they sent you to Yale Law School to take all the first-year classes. Were you heavily incentivized to get good grades that year? I mean, was your job offer dependent on getting straight As?

Well, yes. But what incentivized me more was that every time there was a Supreme Court decision, the Yale Law School library posted the New York Times’ story about it on a bulletin board outside. So I looked at that and said to myself, I’d better do well here in law school. Assuming I do go down to Washington and take this job, I don’t want people to see my stories posted on the bulletin board and say, “Oh yeah, we remember that dumb young woman who didn’t do very well in class.” [laughs] That was, I would say, more of an incentive.  

What were your favorite classes?

To my surprise, I liked a required course called Civil Procedure. I expected it to be really boring, and I was just taking it because I had to take it, but what you learn is how the legal system works. That was very interesting. And then I took a course that was not required but had been recommended to me, a course called Administrative Law. That is really about where the citizen meets the government. It’s the law of federal agencies and federal rules, and a lot of stuff that is front and center today in the age of Trump. I found that very eye-opening, and I urge my students to take it because it really gives an important foundation for understanding the federal system.

How steep was your learning curve at the Supreme Court after undergoing that year of law school? Was it any easier or harder than you expected?

Yeah, I would say it was harder than I expected. It was a steep learning curve because in law school, you don’t really learn about the Supreme Court as an institution — how it works on a day-to-day basis. So I was really pretty clueless. I had some knowledge of legal doctrines, but my first obligation was simply to understand what the court was doing on a day-to-day basis.

There was a lot of self-education, but the Supreme Court press room was also a very collegial place. My colleagues there were helpful, because there’s not the kind of competition in the Supreme Court press corps that there might be on other beats. Nobody really has sources. We all get the same information at the same time — the decision handed down, the order coming out or something like that. So it’s not a cutthroat, competitive place. They were helpful in kind of showing me the ropes.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned from another member of the press corps?

I don’t know if I have a good answer to that. I really didn’t have a clue as to the sort of week in and week out flow of work at the Court. It was basically just learning the ropes from my colleagues.

 Who helped helped you learn the ropes?

There was a guy who’s still in the game, even though he’s approaching 90, named Lyle Denniston, and at that time he wrote for the Washington Evening Star. He eventually ended up as an online reporter for the SCOTUSblog website, where he was very influential. So Lyle was very helpful. A guy who covered the Court for the Associated Press, Dick Carelli, was also helpful. Those two really stand out. People from the Washington Post were also helpful, Wall Street Journal reporters… It’s not a large press corps at all, and it’s kind of a tight-knit, friendly one. Many of us would go to lunch together on a pretty regular basis and talk over what was happening at the Court. It was like a little floating seminar, and that was a lot of fun.

 When I spoke with Adam Liptak, he said that you gave him one piece of important advice: to read the dissent before the majority opinion. When did you figure this out, and why was it so helpful?

I don’t know exactly when I figured it out — somewhere along the line. And it’s helpful because, when you read the dissent, it points you to the path the majority didn’t take, even though maybe they should have. Here’s the path they took, even though maybe nobody really asked them to and maybe they shouldn’t have. You know, here are the missing pieces. I’m not saying that you read it with the notion that the dissent is correct and the majority is not correct. But you just want to make sure that when you do read the majority opinion, you know if there are any missing pieces. And that’s what the dissent will point you to. It’s a helpful rule of thumb.

Can you think of any other rules of thumb that you developed over the years?

A number of my practices are kind of outdated, I guess, because of the internet. [laughs] I mean, Adam has to write a bunch of his stories in advance and then just put a new top on it. The Court did A or the Court did B, and the the background is all written in advance. I didn’t do that — I didn’t have to do that. The way I worked would seem extremely old-fashioned to people today, but I would just sit and read the opinion. I mean, just read every page and make little notes and little checkmarks on it. Before I reached a conclusion as to how I would package it, I kept very close track of everything.

 The person who had the New York Times beat before I did — a guy named Warren Weaver — kept charts of his own devising. These had every case, every vote, and little notations about the case and so on. You could look at these these charts and, if you knew how to translate the chicken scratches, see patterns. I modified those a bit to my own taste, but I started doing it right away. And I still do it. I keep the same charts as a kind of discipline so that I know I have looked at… I won’t say “read.” These days, I don’t have to read every page of every opinion if it’s not something I’m really interested in. But I at least read enough of it so I can record the vote and the holding on my little charts. Maybe there’s no particular reason to do that, but it’s a personal self-discipline that I’ve done all these years.

Compared to when the Supreme Court was your full-time job, how closely do you follow the Court now? I’m guessing that you don’t sift through cert petitions anymore.

I don’t read cert petitions, because what people outside the building don’t have access to is the conference list, which is a list of cases that are ready to go to the justices for that week’s conference. And they’re going to announce which they’re taking and which they’re not taking. People today think they don’t need the conference list because the SCOTUSblog website will put up a post every week saying “Petitions To Watch.” And people just read those petitions that have been pre-digested by the SCOTUSblog editors, so they don’t have to do their own work. I don’t regard that as cheating — I think they’re cheating themselves by doing that.

But anyway, I don’t do that. I do read all the blogs about the Supreme Court, and I keep track about what’s going on there. I read transcripts of arguments and briefs in cases that interest me, and obviously the opinions. It’s not my day job — I teach full-time. I don’t have the luxury of spending my full time pondering the Supreme Court. But it does take a chunk of my time, and I teach this material. So I am highly incentivized to keep up with it.

What are some common mistakes that a new Supreme Court reporter might make?

Well, I think a couple things come to mind. One is not to pay enough attention to the cert process, to the docket-setting function of the Court — what cases they’re granting, what cases they’re not. That’s the Court in action, setting the country’s legal agenda, and you want to have some understanding as to why they might have taken this case. They don’t tell you why — they just say “granted.” I think a lot of people, not only new reporters but more experienced ones, are of course heavily weighted towards the cases that are actually decided. But I think you need to understand the intake process in order to put the decisions in some kind of context.

And then another mistake — well, something that’s not to my taste — is when reporters write stories about a decision with no center of gravity. It simply quotes various stakeholders as saying, you know, “On the one hand, this is good,” and “On the other, hand this is bad.” “This is important,” and “No, it’s not really important.” And so readers are left scratching their heads. Okay, a lot of people are quoted, but who are these people and what am I supposed to think? So I don’t think it’s the reporter’s job to to tell readers what to think, but to empower the readers to think for themselves. To give them the information they need, not just a bunch of quotes about “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” The reporter has to find her own center of gravity in the case. This decision was important. Here’s why, here are the implications, here’s where it comes from, and here’s what the next case is likely to be. All that kind of stuff in the reporter’s own voice, authoritatively, so that readers can understand it. If you don’t feel authoritative about that particular case, then say it’s the unclear what the implications are. We don’t know what the next case is. Just be honest with the reader, and I think it’s a lot better than putting up a smokescreen of a bunch of quotes from other people.

How long did it take you to develop an authoritative voice?

I think I caught on pretty quickly, because I was not completely inexperienced when I took the job. I mean, I was the bureau chief for the last two of the four years when I covered the Albany legislature. I did a fair amount of high-profile, tight-deadline, analytical writing, where I thought it was my job to tell the readers, “Here’s what happened and here’s why you should care about it.” Not “here’s why you should think it’s terrible.” So I think for people that read my Supreme Court coverage side-by-side with other good Supreme Court coverage, one thing that would jump out at them is the absence of quotes in my stories.

How often did you interact with the justices outside the courtroom?

Very little. I mean, random bumping into them at functions or something like that. Basically not, I would say.

This is kind of a funky question: Which justice that you’ve covered would make the best Supreme Court reporter?

Oh, I think Ruth Ginsburg. She’s a good, clean writer, she’s very attentive to detail — she’s very careful with words — and she would do her homework.  

You’ve seen a lot of oral arguments over the years. Are there any advocates who’ve especially impressed you, and what are they doing differently?

One who really was very good, and still is, is Paul Clement. He was the Solicitor General in the second Bush administration, and he was a very skilled oral advocate. If you’re the petitioner, you can save time for rebuttal after the other side goes. He made the best use of the rebuttal time, which is just three or four minutes out of the half hour that you’re allotted. He would have a way of wrapping it up in his closing minutes at just the point where it should have wrapped up. I would analogize it in my mind to — if you know figure skating — landing a triple axel at the minute your music ends. Synchronizing it perfectly.

I also thought Seth Waxman was very good. He had a way of interacting with the justices on the bench that was kind of informal and conversational. He was certainly not disrespectful, not breezy, but so unstuffy. You could tell they respected him and appreciated being able to get answers without a lot of jargon or posing. It was very conversational, and I thought that was a skill that not everybody has.

 I’ve heard that the real purpose of oral argument is for the justices to persuade each other. Do you think that’s true?

Yeah, I think it is true. It’s the first time, in the life of a case, when all nine of them are focused on exactly the same thing. It’s very important where they can bounce ideas off each other by asking the question, and then seeing if the lawyer’s response generates some kind of response from the justice on the other side of the bench. It is important for that.

If you could be a fly on the wall during any of the justices’ conferences — say, when they were discussing Bush v. Gore or Obergefell — which would you choose?

I think NFIB, the first Obamacare case — the one where surprisingly the Chief Justice ended up upholding Obamacare. I would love to know what the process was there, because I don’t think it started out that way. That would’ve been a very interesting conference to eavesdrop on.

Chief Justice Roberts tries very hard to preserve the Court’s image, like when he joined the liberals to uphold Obamacare and when he mentioned the “intelligent man on the street” in Gill v. Whitford. Do you see this as a principled way of protecting the institution, an unprincipled way of interpreting cases, or a little bit of both?

I wouldn’t throw the word “principled” or “unprincipled” into it. As Chief Justice, he’s a kind of guardian of the Court’s public image, and I think that’s very traditional, very typical. And so, to me, it doesn’t sit on the kind of principled/unprincipled dichotomy that your question suggests.  

If you could have had any other beat — Congress, the White House, national security, etc. — what would it be and why?

Well, I did cover Congress for a few years, actually. I found it totally fascinating and engaging. Personally, it was pretty tough because I had a new baby at home. So you’re never sure when you walk into the Capitol when you’re going to walk out, and that was hard. I gave that up after about two years. Just to be clear on this trajectory — not that it matters — I covered the Court for seven years, and then I decided to have a baby. I figured, “seven years is probably enough, and then I can come back and do something else.” There was somebody else in the office who wanted the Supreme Court beat and was highly qualified. He took the Court beat, and I said that I’d like to cover Congress.  

And then, this other guy — his name was Stuart Taylor — decided to leave the Court beat. He didn’t actually like it. And so they asked me to take it back, which I did. It was a little bit of a fortuity that I ended up doing it for thirty years, because had Stuart stayed and liked it, seven years would have been the time when I did it. Life is full of contingencies and unexpected turns in the road. I tell my daughter and my students, “You can’t plan everything out.” You just don’t know how things are going to happen. You have to make yourself available and be open to opportunities, and that’s what happened in my case.

Do you think you would’ve liked covering the Court now, where things are more fast-paced and reliant on technology?

No, I would’ve been quite unhappy. I left at just the right time for me. It was perfect timing, so I loved it when I did it and I’m happy not to be doing it.  

Both you and your husband have made your careers in the law. Did you encourage your daughter to pursue a legal career, and if not, why?

I did not, because I don’t actually believe that parents should try to…  What I always told her was simply, find your passion. You’ll be the luckiest person in the world if you find something to do that makes you want to get out of bed every morning and do it. No matter what it is. She was very much into the visual arts, and her passion was film. Now she’s in Hollywood writing and directing movies. She got elected at age 29 to the Motion Picture Academy, and she’s living her dream. I’m thrilled for her and deeply proud of her. I never told her what to do — I just told her we would be there for her no matter what it turned out to be.

I saw in my own extended family — not my nuclear family — that when parents tried to push their children into something, it doesn’t end well. It really doesn’t. And there’s no point in doing that. I kind of had negative examples around me, so I decided I was not going to be a parent like that.

What are some of your interests and hobbies that have nothing to do with the law?

My husband and I go to a lot of theatre. We travel a lot. I guess in the past year, I’ve had four trips out of the country. And I kind of follow horse racing, which is my favorite sport. Stuff like that.

How often do you experiment by writing in different genres, like fiction or poetry?
Oh, I tried it in high school. Poetry as well. It never struck me that that’s where my talents lay, so I didn’t really go there. I was just more drawn to writing nonfiction or, I guess what today you would call long-form nonfiction.

Do you like John McPhee?

Yes, I do.  

I love him.

When he was writing those long pieces in the New Yorker, I just gobbled those up. Yes, absolutely.  

I really liked “A Sense of Where You Are,” the one about Bill Bradley.

Oh, yes. My favorite is — if you haven’t encountered it, I recommend it — “Coming Into the Country.” It’s about Alaska, and the strange motivation of people who decide they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in what’s left of the wild frontier. I found that very fascinating.

Thirteen years ago, you wrote your first book: “Becoming Justice Blackmun.” Writing is already difficult, and it seems like writing a book for the first time is especially difficult. What was your experience like?

Oh, it was an amazing experience because I only had three months to do it in. I really just had the summer, once the Court finished, until the Court came back. So I spent all my weekdays in the Library of Congress going through these papers and taking notes. During the weekends, I wrote all day. It was kind of an out-of-body experience. It’s one of these things you remember as being sort of in a trance. I had a wonderful editor, Paul Golob, and he totally got the project. It was actually his idea. So there was someone on the other end of the phone who was helpful, because I didn’t know anything about writing a book. In retrospect, it was a great experience.

Why was Justice Blackmun such a compelling subject for you?

It was bit of a fortuity, like so much in life. Before he died, he gave his papers to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that they be closed for five years after his death and then totally opened to the public. He lived for five years after he retired, so the papers came out ten years after he left the bench. And in that time, no one else had retired. So his papers were a window on the current Supreme Court — all the same people — and they were very extensive notes, memos, and copies of everything. It was a window  that had very, very rarely if ever been available to the public. And that’s what made it compelling. It wasn’t necessarily him as a person, but in having to craft a narrative out of this huge array of stuff, I needed to find a through-line. A story. And so the story became his own evolution on the bench, as suggested by the title: “Becoming Justice Blackmun.” He became something quite different from what he had been at the beginning. Shaping the material into a narrative was the challenge of it and also the reward of doing it.  

What was the most surprising thing you learned about him?

Oh, I guess maybe how insecure he was. Also, his stance towards the death penalty was very interesting. He had papers from the earlier court that he had been on, the Eighth Circuit, where he obviously had very strong doubts about the death penalty. But yet, when he came onto the Supreme Court, he voted to uphold it. He thought that his role as a judge didn’t allow him to impose his personal policy preference on the Constitution. By the end of his career, he came to the opposite conclusion; he decided the death penalty was unconstitutional. So that was an interesting story. Everybody focuses on Blackmun and abortion — which, of course, is interesting too. But the death penalty story I thought was particularly compelling.

 In the beginning of the book, you said that Justice Blackmun left a “great gift” by releasing his papers early. Do you think justices should be allowed to destroy their papers?

I think it’s a shame when they do. But I’m not sure there should be a rule about it. The convention is that they decide what they’re going to do, and most of them do keep their papers. I think very few of them keep what Blackmun kept — every little thing, every little note, everything. Most people don’t do that. A little OCD, you might say.  

He kept an astonishing amount of material, including a lot of journals from when he was younger. I think you said it was the mark of an ambitious person…

You know, I wouldn’t say it was ambition. In fact, I’d be surprised if that’s what I wrote. I think he wanted to persuade himself that he mattered. That his life mattered. He was fundamentally quite insecure. By writing things down and saving them, it was a statement — “I’m here. Here’s my stuff.” It was more kind of the internal psychology like that then, “I’m a figure of history, and I’m keeping my papers.”

Why do you think he chose to release them so early?

I think he had no expectation that within that time period the Court would not undergo any further changes. He probably just thought that was a reasonable window of time. That length of time without a change at the Court was the longest length of time since, I believe, the 1820s. So it was not really foreseeable that it would turn out that way.

 You said that you were sort of in a trance writing that book. In the books you’ve written since then, have you had similar out-of-body experiences?

No, I don’t go through a trance because I haven’t had that kind of time pressure. The book I did with my colleague, Michael Graetz, about the Burger Court, we spent probably a year and a half on it. So no, I was not in a trance for a year and a half.  

What is it about the time pressure that’s so wonderful for you?
I was the first person to go through these papers, and I was the one who was putting the stamp of history on this material. You know, it was just kind of exciting.

Other interviews conducted by Anna Salvatore: Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes, former Solicitor General Neal Katyal, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak, SCOTUS court artist Art Lien, UCI Law Professor Leah Litman, IU Maurer Law Professor Ian Samuel, Fix the Court Director Gabe Roth, and litigant extraordinaire Fane Lozman. 

 

 

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