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I’ve been writing on the law for about eight years now, and, perhaps with the exception of chocolate making, I believe it’s the best job in the world. Great subject matter, interesting issues, brilliant colleagues, and the promise of more of the same tomorrow. It’s the perfect beat if you have small kids (no late-night drama, limited rummaging through dumpsters) and the perfect beat for someone who likes to read more than she likes to talk. All of this is evidenced by the U.S. Supreme Court press corps, which is, without doubt, the most intelligent and able group of reporters around. But that said, even the legal beat isn’t perfect. With the benefit of a few years on the job, here’s my list of things I’d change about legal reporting. 10. Stop identifying reports about crime as reports on the law. If you go to CNN.com or MSNBC.com or turn on most of the cable TV “law” shows, what you will find, almost without exception, is a story about Someone Who Did Something Truly Awful to a Small Child. And while it’s true that reporting on real crime is important, it’s also true that such reporting conflates what courts do with what criminals do. This single-minded focus on sensational crime leads Americans to think (a) that we in this country are under permanent siege by vile criminals, despite the decline in crime rates, and (b) that the only object of legal processes is to try violent criminals. Serious reporting on other aspects of the law — from legislation to terror trials to the business cases before the high court — would give the public a fuller understanding of what lawyers and judges do. 9. Stop labeling judges as Republicans and Democrats. Yes, it’s true. Judges are appointed by Democrats and Republicans, and in many jurisdictions they run as the same. But at least in theory, once a judge dons that black robe, the fact that she was a Democrat or a Republican really isn’t all that much more relevant than the fact that she is a Catholic or a onetime college debater. When legal reporters insist that a jurist’s former party affiliation is the one fact of paramount importance to understanding the story, they do violence to the notion that judging is a fundamentally different matter from party politics. 8. Stop covering only the sex trials gavel-to-gavel. Americans love sex. It is, after all, what got us here. But Anna Nicole Smith is not, in and of herself, a legal argument, legal doctrine, or legal story. While it’s true that the life of Ms. Smith intersected with the life of the law on many occasions, it is not clear that every legal fight involving her, her survivors, or her remains warrants minute scrutiny. A corollary to this rule: If you must cover Anna Nicole Smith as the top legal story of the decade, at least cover the legal story. I wonder how many people watching Smith’s 2006 appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court ever heard the words “probate exception.” 7. Stop covering the law as if it were science. Whether it’s out of reverence for the courts or reverence for the law itself, some legal reporters refuse to report on anything but the facts. While that’s a critical responsibility, it’s also true that we should have as many columnists and opinion writers mouthing off about the law in this country as we have mouthing off about politics. The law is not astral physics. It can be explained and interpreted and shaped. Citizens need to hear normative discussions of the law as much as they need to hear positive ones. 6. Stop using the term “activist judge.” These words convey no useful information. They are political tools. 5. Read the opinions. Yes, they are long, and they seem to get longer every year. And what with the plurality opinions and the concurrences and the four dissents, they can run you right into your dinner hour and beyond. This is not a beat for folks who like bullet points or summaries. In the end, the only way to convey how a judicial nominee voted in the past is to cancel your summer plans and read all of his opinions. Opinions are too readily carved up and spun. The best legal reporters I know read the blue briefs, the red briefs, and the green briefs, and then read them again. 4. Talk to the judges. And judges, talk to the media. Judges across the country feel like they’re under siege. They feel their positions have been irreparably politicized (see items 9 and 6, supra), and yet, for the most part, they still operate as though it were 1802 and someone was waiting with a horse and buggy outside Ye Olde Courthouse to pick up the opinion and drive it to the next town. Some judges are beginning to figure out that dignified silence will only get them so far and that there is a time and a place to speak to the media. Reporters need to figure out how to meet them halfway. With the exception of that nutty Anna Nicole Smith judge. Reporters should avoid him. 3. Read the statutes. We in the media did a wretched job reporting the so-called compromise struck by the president and Congress over legislation governing military tribunals for the detainees at Guant�namo Bay. Why? Because we blindly accepted that it was a compromise in the first place. It wasn’t. But while bloggers and law professors were carefully reading and comparing each draft of the Military Commissions Act, most of us in the mainstream media simply took the politicians’ description at face value. That may be the reason we missed so many of the important aspects of the Patriot Act as well. Reading statutes makes reading legal opinions look like a day at the water park. It’s deathly. But legal reporters need to be as knowledgeable about legislation as about case law. 2. Tell the people what an “indictment” means. My guess is that if the mainstream media had taken the time to explain what an indictment really means, the coverage of the Duke University rape allegations would not have become so incendiary quite so quickly. Perhaps this is far too optimistic, but my impression is that if we had taken the time to fully explain the criminal process, the burdens of proof, and the workings of a grand jury, both readers and quick-to-judge pundits would have been either too bored or too chastened to opine on matters of ultimate guilt or innocence. Maybe none of those things is as scintillating as a stripper. But slicing out just a piece of the criminal process without offering a complete picture of what it means is akin to proclaiming the defendant’s guilt on sight. The same is true for the perp walk, the prosecutor’s press conference, and the other trappings of “gotcha” legal coverage. If we want to cover fair trials later, we need to cover the run-up to them fairly as well. 1. Have fun. Maybe not the Anna Nicole Smith kind of fun. We’re probably having far too much of that already. But it seems to me that the law and the courts are ripe for teasing, deflating, parody, and other noncontact sports. Judges are funny, as are bailiffs and law clerks and district attorneys and transcription services. The courts are not a form of cancer. They’re the greatest theater we have.
Dahlia Lithwick is the U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for Slate . This article previously appeared in The American Lawyer , an ALM publication.

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