Few people outside certain specialized sectors of the press and the legal profession have any particular reason to read the increasingly voluminous opinions through which the Justices of the Supreme Court explain their interpretations of the Constitution and laws. Most of what the public knows about the Supreme Court necessarily comes from the press. That fact raises questions of considerable importance to the functioning of our constitutional democracy: How, for example, does the press describe the work of the Supreme Court? And has the way in which the press describes the work of the Court changed over the past several decades?
This Article seeks to address those questions by comparing the language used in print media coverage of two highly salient cases involving similar legal issues decided fifty years apart: Brown v. Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. Our study suggests that, at least in highly salient cases, the nature of print media coverage may well have changed dramatically during that fifty-year interval. More specifically, our study suggests that while the mid-twentieth century press described the Court’s decisions largely in terms of the legal questions presented, the contemporary press seems more likely to describe the Court’s decisions in non-legal terms—as something resembling a spectacle, in which unelected judges are presumed to decide cases, not on properly contested legal grounds, but based on their respective political commitments.
That conclusion is striking. First, it suggests that in the ongoing scholarly debate over the nature of the Justices’ approach to their work, the press has chosen sides. Rather than closely interrogating the Court’s work to determine whether particular analyses and results can be defended on legal grounds, contemporary reporting seems to proceed on the assumption that that question lacks salience—because we already know that the Justices’ political views and allegiances are the true drivers of Supreme Court decisions. Thus, contemporary press coverage tends to emphasize such factors as the political affiliation of the president who appointed a particular Justice. Second, it raises questions about the way in which the contemporary press is discharging its responsibility to educate the public about the Court and its work. It also raises the possibility that the public will become predisposed to doubt the Court’s legitimacy, and, indeed, the very legitimacy of the American system of judicial review.
If the Court’s decisions really reflect nothing more than the Justices’ political predilections and commitments, or those of the elites to which they belong, it is important for the public to know that. Nothing could be more important than discovering and documenting the fact that the Justices wear no clothes. On the other hand, whether Supreme Court decisions deserve to be viewed in that way is a question that needs to be tested through a careful examination of the Court’s work product. It is something to be proved rather than presumed. The contemporary print media’s seemingly casual assumption that the main point about reporting on the Supreme Court is not to test the validity of the Court’s reasoning, and explore its flaws, but to try to trace connections between the Justices’ voting behavior and their political or other commitments, may well corrode public confidence in the Court. If that occurs unnecessarily, and without adequate justification, the consequences for the institution of judicial review may well be dire. Moreover, if the public’s expectations are lowered, so too may be the standards the Justices set for themselves and each other. In other words, if the press leads us to believe that the Court’s work product is nothing more than politics, that may well become a self fulfilling prophecy—if it has not already happened.
Barry Sullivan & Cristina Carmody Tilley, Supreme Court Journalism: From Law to Spectacle?, 77 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 343 (2020).