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I first started covering the U.S. Supreme Court just over five years ago. As measured in high court years, that’s barely a nanosecond — everything there moves glacially. But as measured in the life of the Internet, it’s been an age; an age that’s brought about some rather stunning changes. One of the most striking aspects of Supreme Court coverage is how little it’s changed over the centuries. Since televisions and recording devices are still barred from the court, curious citizens must still rely largely on a cadre of print reporters to cover oral argument and summarize new decisions. Sketch artists’ renderings of some usually fungible white male at a podium might accompany news reports in the really “big cases,” and television news trucks park outside the marble plaza to cover the press conferences that take place on the front steps when argument concludes. For the most part, however, news of the day in the courtroom comes filtered through the eyes and ears of the clutch of reporters permitted — with pen and pad and nothing else — inside the hallowed chambers. The Internet is rapidly changing all that. When I first began to write for Slate, the online magazine founded in 1996, I used to be distinctly bitter that all the other journalists had several hours (and the luxury of a convivial lunch together beforehand) before filing their stories. I, on the other hand, had to leap into cabs, bound up staircases, and file within four hours, because in the world of Internet news, tomorrow morning was simply way too late. The Internet has utterly collapsed the notion of a “news cycle,” and stories run as they happen. The change in the intervening years at the court has been rather remarkable. Not only do bloggers now post their accounts of oral argument within two to three hours of leaving the courtroom, but even the traditional print journalists now scramble to post online editions of their stories that same afternoon. As the time frame for producing news has shortened, the community of online “reporters” has expanded. Whereas Americans once had to rely exclusively on the print, radio and TV “experts” for an account of the day’s events, the Web has made it possible for visiting law students, lawyers and even the parties to the dispute to post their impressions of oral argument almost instantaneously. With the help of some insanely dedicated bloggers — such as Howard Bashman at “How Appealing” and the crack team of court watchers at Scotusblog — links to the most obscure accounts of oral argument are made available to thousands of readers within hours of the court coming to order. In an article in The Washington Post, my former boss, Michael Kinsley, made another important observation about bloggers: They create a fundamentally democratic community of shared interests in which there are no rules dictating page length, credentials of writers, or which letters to the editor might make the cut. As a consequence, the Web has fostered more than just a cacophony of new voices to report on the doings of the Supreme Court; it’s opened up a dialogue among far-flung experts. Law professors in California immediately correct misimpressions in New Jersey, and attorneys in Boston challenge constitutional analysis coming out of Seattle. The public no longer listens passively to the events of the day. A recent piece by Steve Outing at “Poynter Online” puts it this way: “News is a conversation. Not just a lecture.” Stories don’t end upon publication, they get their start there. Internet journalists and bloggers are similarly subject to almost instantaneous peer review by thousands of incensed readers. Whereas it takes terrific energy to mail off a correction to a print publication, it takes all of 20 seconds to e-mail the editors of Slate and let them know that their Supreme Court correspondent got the third prong of the Lemontest wrong. And Slate joins most bloggers in having instituted policies of instantly admitting their mistakes and publishing them prominently. There is no patience on the Internet for the tiny box where corrections can be run the next day in eight-point font. This leads to the final, and perhaps most important, shift in the way the Internet has changed Supreme Court reporting: The community of bloggers generally prides itself on its hang-loose nature, and lay accounts of oral argument blithely abandon the deferential tones of the traditional media in favor of irreverence, opinion and subjectivity. If an oral advocate in a case is horrifyingly bad, most of the traditional reporters politely ignore it. Bloggers and the folks who e-mail bloggers tend to be less respectful. Instead of the neutral detachment of a trained journalist, sharp elbows are suddenly being thrown all over the Web on issues ranging from medicinal marijuana to Clarence Thomas’ fitness for chief justice. Whereas the traditional journalists have, for the most part, politely avoided speculating over whether Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s thyroid cancer is affecting the workings of the court, bloggers have not been afraid to wade in and hash it out. Opinions are offered, counteropinions are laid out. There is a growing recognition that the Supreme Court is composed of humans, and that subjective human interpretation can and should have a role in the life of the high court. The really interesting question, then, is this: Has the court changed the way it does business in response to the Internet? Has anything about the court been shifted to acknowledge that there’s a new media in town? Yes and no. Certainly the court has begun to take the possibilities of the Web seriously by improving its Web site every year. Oral argument transcripts are now available online, within 10 to 15 days, for example (you used to have to trek all the way to the court’s library to take a gander). You can download the court’s docket and opinions and press releases from your desk in Minnesota or any WiFi-enabled cafe in the world. Pretty snazzy. And the court has made the audio of some arguments in a handful of major cases available an hour after argument closes. Which means you can listen to argument streamed almost live on the Web and truly experience all the joys of shiver-inducing sarcasm from Antonin Scalia or a 12-part hypothetical from Stephen Breyer. But the court still doesn’t credential bloggers (the one credentialed blogger has been covering the court for almost 40 years and is formally credentialed as a radio correspondent), and it still won’t entertain the notion that audiocasts should become a part of everyday life at the court. Those of us who report on the court still can’t use tape recorders at argument, and we still rely on our flying pens and best guesses to establish what was said that day. In short, the Web has changed court reporting quite significantly, and changed the way the court does business almost not at all. Which suggests that — as it did with radio and television before — the court might largely ignore a whole new medium that could shine some light on its mysterious ways. But don’t underestimate the wily bloggers and Internet reporters. They’ve already proven, time and again, that there are no marble walls in cyberspace. Dahlia Lithwickis a senior editor and Supreme Court correspondent for Slate. She is co-author of “Me v. Everybody” (Workman Publishing Co.) E-mail: [email protected]. This article first appeared in The American Lawyer, aRecorder affiliate.

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