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BRIGHT IDEAS: Mike Sacks on Supreme Court Reporting from the Front Lines

Sometime before commencement of the Supreme Court’s 2009 term, Mike Sacks, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, had an idea.  Taking advantage of his close living proximity to the Court, Mike would attempt to be the first one in line for all of the major oral arguments for the Court’s term. In addition, he would interview people in line about why they were there and their impressions of the Court and the case to be argued. And, most importantly, he would start a blog to report on his experiences. Mike has been engaging in legal journalism from a unique vantage point: from the front lines — or, from the “front of the line” — of the Supreme Court. Mike’s bright idea has resulted in a successful Supreme Court blog, First One @ One First.  [Recall Mike’s mission to be the “first one” in line at “One First” Street NE (the Court’s address).] Click HERE for the blog’s mission statement. Mike’s experiences and blogging have been featured in the New York Times (see HERE as well), National Public Radio, the ABA Journal, the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov/PostPolitics, The Atlantic, Slate, Volokh Conspiracy, Above the Law, and other outlets.

Mike’s blogging has also launched the beginning of what is likely to be a successful career in legal journalism. In fact, Mike wrote the cover story for last week’s issue of the Christian Science Monitor.  He has also been blogging at some premier legal blogs. Below, Mike answers some of my questions about his reporting experiences, his impressions of the Court’s term, and his perspective on the Supreme Court in general.

1.  Could you talk briefly about how and why you came up with this idea of what might be called “legal journalism from the front lines?”

Because Concurring Opinions is more of an academic blog, I’ll start with F1@1F’s intellectual underpinnings.  As the Citizens United rehearing approached last September, I noticed that the Roberts Court’s dockets and decisions from OT06 through OT08 appeared to track the surrounding political climate.  Once so boldly conservative on all the hot buttons when operating under the cover of Republican-controlled Legislative and Executive branches, the Roberts Court–now operating alongside Democratic political branches–appeared to have shaped an exceedingly modest OT09 docket so to have enough political capital to spend on Citizens United without irreparably damaging the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

I wanted to test my hypothesis that the Roberts Court was not only sensitive, but also responsive, to its surrounding political climate. Of course, I could have done this by reading transcripts of oral argument and digging through the decisions once released.  But I lived four blocks from the Court and had already had a blast camping out for Citizens United / Sotomayor’s first day.  When I noticed I had no morning classes for the Spring Term on the Court’s argument days, I really decided to make this an in-the-flesh project.

But I wouldn’t have followed through so thoroughly had I not had vocational motivations as well.  I entered law school very interested in constitutional law, politics, and media.  After my first year, I interned for Nina Totenberg at NPR.  That was the summer of Heller and Boumediene.  I so enjoyed that experience that I took a semester off to work at ABC News’s Law & Justice Unit in New York, where I covered the legal aspects of the 2008 Presidential Election and the Wall Street meltdown.  Once back at school and on the job market, I thought there was no better way to make myself attractive to both legal and media employers than to build a body of work on the Supreme Court beat.

Nevertheless, just another person writing about the Court out in the ether wouldn’t have been too compelling.  But getting out in line at disturbingly early hours and telling the tales of those crazy enough to join me – now that’s something no one had ever done. Indeed, if the Court is responsive to the political climate, and if public opinion on any given case is the “weather” that shapes our broader climate, then I figured those who cared enough to get out in line on bitterly cold mornings well before the sun came up would make a very good representative sample for the people who shape public opinion.  By asking these folk, “why are you here?”, I would be committing interesting journalism while also informing my research about the Roberts Court.

2.   What unique insights have your experiences over the past term given you about the Supreme Court and the justices?

Chief Justice Roberts is a superb political strategist.  He’s steering a right-of-center Court through a left-of-center government and knows which storms his ship can handle and which it cannot.  I wrote prospectively about this back in December, Jeff Rosen of The New Republic wrote about it in February, and Adam Liptak of the New York Times wrote about it just the other day.

What we’ve seen this year is the birth of John Roberts’ Court.  It will always, to a degree, remain the Anthony Kennedy Court as well, until he leaves the bench or one of the conservatives is replaced by a liberal.  But Roberts took control this year in the Court’s decisionmaking that we haven’t yet seen.  The next interesting thing to look out for is what issues beyond Miranda, guns, arbitration, and campaign finance the Chief believes are ripe for conservative gains as the Congress and the Presidency remain in Democratic hands.
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