The Supreme Court beat is usually gloriously predictable. There are arguments roughly two weeks a month from October to April. The big decisions come in June. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy effectively decides most of them. Then the justices leave town for the summer.
It’s pretty civilized.
Or it was until Feb. 13, 2016, a Saturday, when Justice Antonin Scalia died during a hunting trip in Texas. That set off a 419-day running story that culminated in the confirmation on Friday of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch as the 113th justice.
Any Supreme Court vacancy is a four-alarm journalistic fire. This one raged for more than a year, and over time its blazing heat warped institutional norms. It also destroyed my beat’s predictability.
The first order of business on that Saturday in February was publishing Justice Scalia’s obituary, which I had first filed in 2011 and later revised once or twice. (There are close to 1,700 advance obituaries in the system.)
By Sunday morning, Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief, had organized a conference call with at least a dozen reporters and editors. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, had already announced that he meant to deny a confirmation hearing to anyone President Barack Obama had the temerity to nominate, though there was almost a year left in his presidency.
The vacancy was thus a White House story, and a congressional story, and a political story in a presidential campaign year, and a national story and for a moment an international story. It was also, of course, a story about the nature and future of the Supreme Court.
I have covered the court since 2008, and I report on developments there more or less solo. Our coverage of the fight over Justice Scalia’s seat involved at least 31 reporters.
It was clear almost from the beginning that the vacancy would give rise to an epic political brawl, but it took some time to see that it would do damage to both the Senate and the Supreme Court. In a prescient column a little more than a week after Justice Scalia died, Carl Hulse, the chief Washington correspondent, saw where things were heading. “The rampant dysfunction that has riven Congress and undermined relations between the executive and legislative branches in the Obama era,” he wrote, “now threatens to engulf the nation’s highest court.”
I was pretty sure Mr. Obama’s choice would be Judge Sri Srinivasan, who served on a federal appeals court in Washington and was born in India. I had a profile of him ready to go, and The Times dispatched Ellen Barry to a village in India with an impossibly long name to talk to the judge’s relatives. Ellen’s piece was characteristically artful, but it gave rise to the inevitable correction: “The village is Mela Thiruvenkatanathapuram, not Mela Thiruvenkanathapuram.”
In the end, Mr. Obama’s choice, on March 16, 2016, was Judge Merrick B. Garland. He had impeccable credentials, a moderate record and fans across the ideological spectrum. But Mr. McConnell was true to his word, and Judge Garland never got a hearing. He handled his lot with grace and grit, as Sarah Lyall showed in a lovely profile in February.
On Jan. 31, President Trump chose Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, and this time I guessed right (though I had also prepared profiles of Judges Thomas M. Hardiman and William H. Pryor Jr.).
Come April 17, when the court returns for its last two-week sitting of the term, there will again be nine chairs behind the bench, and Justice Gorsuch will be in one of them.
If you cover an institution long enough, you become attentive to its professed values, possibly too much so. In the case of the Supreme Court, those values include discretion, decorum, intellectual polish, collegiality and a disinterested devotion to the rule of law. The raw and angry politics that propelled Judge Gorsuch onto the court were animated by something entirely different.
Things will now return to normal for the court — and for reporters who cover it. But it will be a long time until they feel normal.
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