Linda Greenhouse’s Bird’s Eye View of The Supreme Court

Linda Greenhouse is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who covered the United States Supreme Court for nearly three decades for The New York Times.  She is also a Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph M. Goldstein Senior Fellow at Yale Law School. 

Accolades don’t get more prestigious than hers, yet her accomplishments are paralleled by her wit and forthrightness, as I experienced first-hand when she spoke here at New York Law School on March 3, 2011.  Ms. Greenhouse astutely pointed out that the nine Supreme Court Justices, who are arguably some of the most powerful people in our country, are largely anonymous and unrecognized in public.  There is a lot of mystique and mystery attached to these individuals and what goes on inside their chambers. 

Ms. Greenhouse mused about many of the hot topics and buzz surrounding the Justices and gave an insider’s view on the inner workings of the Supreme Court. 

But even more interesting than a true expert’s view of the Nation’s highest court was the inescapable takeaway that Linda Greenhouse is an extraordinary woman with a singular perspective. I walked away from the talk stuck by how commanding yet subtle she was and how sure she was of her well-founded expertise.  But I was most impressed by her wit, which tied the talk together.  She is a veteran reporter who has extensively studied and written about the Supreme Court and is not afraid to make her opinion known, whether it wins her friends, enemies or fans (as the case was for me).

Some of the highlights from her discussion will give you an idea of just what I’m talking about.   Interestingly, she saved her pro-female raves for both Elena Kagan and Ruth Ginsburg for the end of her talk.  

Scalia as an Angry Bomb Thrower:  In a piece she wrote for the New York Times that was published the week after her talk Ms. Greenhouse dismissed Justice Scalia’s impact on the Court even as conservatives lionize him as their model justice. She wrote: “Antonin Scalia, approaching his 25th anniversary as a Supreme Court justice, has cast a long shadow but has accomplished surprisingly little.” 

And as she told us here at NYLS, Justice Scalia’s one major accomplishment in the realm of the Sixth Amendment was all but erased by a recent Supreme Court decision, much to his chagrin. 

In the case at issue, Michigan v. Bryant, the question was whether statements made to the police by a shooting victim as he lay bleeding to death in the parking lot of a Detroit gas station were properly used at trial to obtain a murder conviction of the man he named as the gunman.

By a vote of 6 to 2, the Court voted yes. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion and emphasized that rather than trying to obtain a dying man’s testimony for use in a courtroom, the police were investigating an “ongoing emergency.” As such, the victim’s statements were not “testimonial,” meaning that their use at trial did not violate the defendant’s right under the Sixth Amendment to “confront” an accuser who was unavailable for cross-examination.

Justice Scalia angrily dissented and was enraged that his far more narrow view of the 6th amendment was all but erased by the opinion. The opinion was filled with barely-veiled insults at the majority justices. Ms. Greenhouse remarked that Justice Scalia’s writing grabs a lot of attention but wrote that she  “can’t think of an example of one of Justice Scalia’s bomb-throwing opinions ever enticing a wavering colleague to come over to his corner.”

Justice Thomas’ Buzzed About Silence:  On to another—perhaps even hotter—topic: the much buzzed about issue of Justice Thomas’ refraining from asking any question at oral argument for more than five years.  When asked by a student why she believes this to be the case, she answered that he is "a little boy who says I’m going to stand in the corner until I turn blue.”  She went on to posit that he Justice Thomas “got himself into a situation”, that it’s really “psychological, and he can’t really back out” of his hard-lined stance now. 

Back in the 70s, she explained, the Justices didn’t speak as much as they currently do during oral argument, so there wouldn’t have been so much speculation back then as there is now.

Employing her wit, Ms. Greenhouse pointed out that back when Thomas did ask questions, “they were perfectly good and interesting questions, so it can’t be that he doesn’t know how.” She concluded, “it’s an arrogance," and he got stuck in his stubbornness.

Elena Kagan as The Underrated Superstar:  When asked her opinion about Elena Kagan, she ardently says that she has “heard authoritatively that she is fabulous” and that Scalia taught her how to shoot a gun—an amusing tidbit to visualize. 

Ms. Greenhouse went on to say that Ms. Kagan has a lot of interpersonal skills that will be brought to bear on the Court. Justice Kagan uses attorneys as law clerks vs. law students.  Ms. Greenhouse emphasized since lawyers have had practice and other experiences that clerks right out of law school haven’t, the Court can only benefit from the added-value more experience can provide. 

The Best Writer Award goes to Justice Ginsburg:  A student asked Ms. Greenhouse: “Who, putting politics aside, is the best writer on the Supreme Court and who is the worst?”

Immediately, Ms. Greenhouse said that Justice Ruth Ginsburg is the best writer as her she is “very clear, very precise, and does not waste a word; she is a cut above the rest.” 

As for the worst writer, Ms. Greenhouse said, “with [Justice] Souter having retired, and I love Souter, but his opinions read like they were directly translated from the German.”

Ms. Greenhouse uses her long-standing bird’s eye view of the Supreme Court to relay the inside workings of the Court in a way that only a completely confident woman can.  Because she does so nonchalantly with her years of experience as her foundation, she faces little resistance-- an interesting lesson for fellow female lawyers and law students to take in.  

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