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Supreme Court press limited by some antiquated rules

March 27, 2013|By Timothy M. Phelps

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is a place where tradition often trumps modern practicality, and for the press that is making it difficult to cover the two days of gay marriage arguments in the minute-by-minute style to which its television audience and online readers have become accustomed.

Reporters are stripped of any cellphones and other modern electronic devices before they enter the courtroom, with its 24 columns of Italian light sienna marble.

The justices sit on a raised, curved mahogany bench, in front of a tableau of the Ten Commandments and two figures depicting “majesty of the law” and “power of government.”

FULL COVERAGE: Battle over gay marriage

Journalists who cover the court regularly sit lined up in two pew-like rows on the edge of the courtroom, others in chairs in a foyer just outside. They are free to leave, but not to return. And that is the rub for would-be bloggers.

On rare occasions like the gay marriage arguments and last year’s arguments over President Obama’s healthcare law, audio of the arguments is piped downstairs to other reporters in the court’s press room, but even these reporters are banned from filing what they hear while they are listening.

That makes it virtually impossible to do a real “live blog” of what the justices say, minute by minute. With no means of getting that news out, many news organizations resort to sending two or more reporters and bringing one out early for a breathless, interim report.

Gay marriage through the years

But that can be misleading because one side may not have argued its side yet or only some of the justices may have weighed in on the case.

The justices are good at asking rhetorical questions, and tough questioning of one side of a case does not mean the same justice will not ask probing questions of the other side, making predictions -- always tricky in court arguments -- quite perilous based on only a part of what is said.  

Even trying to report too quickly on the court’s decisions can be perilous. When Chief Justice John G. Roberts issued his historic decision upholding the Obama healthcare law last summer, several news outlets got the decision wrong because news gatherers left the courtroom before the entire decision had been read.

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