Press Coverage of the United States Supreme Court

AuthorChester A. Newland
Published date01 March 1964
Date01 March 1964
Subject MatterArticles
North Texas State University
OPINION of judicial behavior and law are of vital consequence in
the American legal system as a critical aspect of a polity based upon principles
-M~ of popular sovereignty and limited government. This is particularly true of the
United States Supreme Court. With the spread of legal realism and social science
criticism in this century, the Supreme Court has lost the somewhat protective cloak
provided by past myths of mechanical judging, and its opinions and processes are
subjected to increasingly broad political scrutiny. Consequently, respect for the Su-
preme Court and law in general depends increasingly upon popular appreciation of
the inherent merits of the Court’s work. At the same time legal concepts and institu-
tions are subjected to an ever diminishing time span of technical and social change
which imposes heavy pressures upon the Court and upon the American people whose
ultimate support the Court needs. Great obligations are placed upon the high court
justices and media of mass communications by these circumstances.
This is a study of how these obligations were treated by the Court and leading
representatives of the American press in the Court’s October Term, 1961. The
Court’s press facilities and provisions for news coverage by the wire services and key
newspaper reporters are described first. Then reporting in the metropolitan press of
two major cases is analyzed. That is followed by brief examination of wire service
coverage of the 1961 Term generally. This analysis supports the conclusions that
both the Court and the press need to improve their methods if essential public under-
standing and support of the Court and a dynamic legal system are to exist.
This problem of press coverage of the Supreme Court was publicly recognized
by Mr. Justice Clark after the close of the 1961 Term when the Court found itself
engulfed by a rising tide of public criticism over the Prayer case, decided June 25,
1962.~ Justice Clark explained that popular misunderstanding was the cause of dis-
content, and he laid much of the blame on newsmen.2 Pressure on reporters to com-
municate the ruling rapidly with numerous other opinions announced the same day
was described by Clark as the chief cause of inaccuracy. Clark’s criticism of the press
was answered immediately by representatives of the Associated Press and United
Press International. The AP’s reporter at the Court for the past eighteen years, Paul
Yost, said: &dquo;We had it 100% accurate. We stuck right to the opinion and dealt
specifically with what the opinion said.&dquo; 3 Washington Bureau Manager for UPI,
NOTE : Research for this study was aided by the Faculty Research Fund of North Texas State

Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
Justice Clark’s remarks were reported in brief in the New York Times, August 4, 1962, p. 9.
His criticism was answered in a short column in Editor and Publisher, August 11, 1962,
p. 11. Reporting of the decision was later commented upon by a journalist: William A.
Hachten, "Journalism and the prayer decision," I Columbia Journalism Review 4-9 (Fall
Editor and Publisher, supra.

Julius Frandsen, retorted that the reporting was &dquo;remarkably good,&dquo; and suggested
that Clark was evidently &dquo;confusing what news agencies have written with what
certain members of Congress and the Clergy were saying.&dquo; 4 Charlotte Moulton,
UPI reporter at the Court since 1949, suggested that the particular problem noted
by Justice Clark might result from an &dquo;emotional accompaniment&dquo; which causes
people to &dquo;read into the stories certain inaccuracies&dquo; when they touch on the sensitive
matter of religion.5
Although it illustrates the problem of public opinion of the Supreme Court’s
work especially well, reporting of the Prayer case and the reaction to it was only a
small part of the total communications responsibilities of the justices and the press
during the October Term, 1961. In all, 1,062 cases on the regular docket and 1,510
on the miscellaneous docket were handled by the Court in the 1961 Term, and of
those 125 went through the long route from filing to acceptance for review, oral
argument, and final decision. The press covers each step in this process, eliminating
on its own those cases which newsmen think merit no reports and identifying the
significant aspects of others for reporting to local, regional, or national publics. At
the same time, reactions to opinions (often solicited) are reported, individual judges
and the Court as an institution are described and analyzed, conjectural articles are
formulated, and editorials and political cartoons are published which may either
promote public understanding or obscure the actual work of the Court.
Facilities for the press at the United States Supreme Court differ markedly
from provisions in the executive and legislative branches. No positive program of
public relations exists in the sense of promotion or publicity of decisions, justices, or
the Court as an institution. Press releases are not utilized. Decisions are announced,
often in large numbers, on a few opinion-Mondays with no apparent regard for con-
siderations of timing. And as a rule the justices and Court subordinates do not com-
ment publicly upon opinions or respond to criticisms of the Court. Press interviews
with justices are rare, and press conferences are nonexistent. Starting with the 1961
Term the Court’s hours for arguments and announcements of decisions have been
from 10 : 00 A.M. to 12 : 00 noon and 12 : 30 P.M. to 2 : 30 P.M. Monday through Thurs-
day. For eighty-eight years before that the Court convened at twelve noon. The new
hours permit news reporters to meet more deadlines of afternoon papers if stories
are rushed. The
change was not made for the convenience of the press, however, but
because the justices desired the new hours.6
The Court’s provisions for the press are essentially limited to facilities which
provide ready access to all pertinent public documents and papers and permit news
reporters to receive and report opinions rapidly but without interference with estab-
lished court routine. Essential physical facilities and raw information are provided
to any reporter; but the burden of sorting, digesting, and reporting the information


Interviews, Banning C. Whittington, Press Officer, U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.,
August 30 and September 5, 1962.

is left almost entirely to the newsmen, most of whom are untrained for reporting legal
Physical facilities for news coverage of the Court center in a press suite on the
ground floor of the Supreme Court Building. This includes a small press room for
use by most reporters, a separate room occupied chiefly by the regular reporter for
the Associated Press, and an office for the Court’s press officer. The main press
room is provided with telephones and essential furniture, and one corner is parti-
tioned off to serve as an office for the United Press reporter. In addition to the press
suite, facilities are provided for reporters to listen and take notes in the courtroom.
Photographic, recording, radio and television equipment may not be used. At one
side of the courtroom chairs are available for reporters provided they first secure
news passes from the press officer. Acoustics are poor, and an ample number of
places is generally available. Also, just in front of the court bench are six small press
desks. These are generally reserved for reporters of the Associated Press, the United
Press International, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,
and Washington Star. These desks are connected by air tubes and one-way telephones
to five press cubicles below the courtroom. Two of these cubicles are unused. The
other three are occupied on opinion-Mondays by the chief reporters for AP, UPI,
and the Wall Street Journal, representing the Dow-Jones News Wire. These chief
reporters receive opinions and notes through the tubes from reporters or secretaries
in the courtroom, and they may speak by phone to the courtroom news representa-
tives who may not speak back. The first floor cubicles have provisions for teletype
operation and they are also connected by phone to main news bureaus in downtown
Washington. Besides these facilities, air tubes from the courtroom to the press suite
are used to notify the press officer of the announcement of opinions so that printed
copies may then be distributed to newsmen, most of whom gather there.
Since the Court’s move to the present building in 1935 and the provision of
special press facilities, a Supreme Court press officer has been employed. Until 1947
this position was filled by an employee of the Clerk’s office who was trained in law,
not journalism. Since 1947 the position has been filled by a journalist, Banning E.
(Bert) Whittington, who covered the Court for the United Press from 1941 to 1945.
The press officer is not a court spokesman in the sense of a press secretary in an
executive or public relations office. However, his office is designed to serve as a source
of information and service to news reporters and other interested people.
The principal materials provided for newsmen by the press officer are: (1) com-
plete reference files of briefs and records of cases on the regular docket, with sepa-
rate sets for AP
and UPI reporters; (2)...

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