January 8, 2018 / 11:14 AM / a year ago

From brief to bench, on the beat with SCOTUS

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The two Reuters reporters covering the U.S. Supreme Court spend many days buried in a sea of paper. A wall of shelves in the Reuters section of the press room at the Supreme Court is overflowing with thousands of thick legal briefs (a misnomer of the highest order), documenting cases working their way up through the U.S. court system.

FILE PHOTO: Attendees walk across the plaza outside ahead of oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Last November, the Supreme Court made a big technological leap and began sharing case materials on its website so those stacks of multi-colored briefs could disappear. However, the intense planning for the upcoming session will not change.

The court divides its work by terms, running from October to June. The justices are back at work for a new round of oral arguments on Jan. 8.

One mission-critical task for reporters on the beat is carefully considering the importance and impact of each case coming to the court. Making those decisions early gives them a jump on reporting that needs to be ready for the day a decision is announced.

Coverage of each Supreme Court session is divided into three key areas: announcements on new cases the justices will hear, oral arguments and rulings. Reuters is present when the nine Supreme Court Justices hear oral arguments, sitting in the second row of the courtroom to the left of the bench near Justice Elena Kagan.

For ruling announcements, reporters receive actual copies of court opinions in the court’s public information office. “The time pressure is very real to be first and accurate,” says Lawrence Hurley, who has been covering the court for Reuters for the past five years. 

Most closely watched are rulings on cases argued in the previous session. Reporters pre-write stories with various outcomes, and the multimedia team creates graphics with different scenarios, so they are ready to be published when a ruling is made.

So far this term, which began in October, the Supreme Court has issued one ruling. Hurley and colleague Andrew Chung are watching for decisions on several high-profile cases, including President Donald Trump’s travel ban policy, which could soon return to the court, and that of a Christian baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple.

During the January 2018 session, Hurley says Reuters will pay close attention to oral arguments over an Ohio voting law that was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed the law violated individual voting rights. The case involves Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked the Republican-led state’s policy of purging people from voter-registration lists if they do not regularly cast ballots.

Hurley says the Supreme Court beat is one the broadest and most interesting at Reuters.

“You’re covering immigration, gay rights, criminal justice issues, the conflict between White House and other branches of government as well as the states,” he says. “All the big issues that are dividing the country at any given time nearly always end up here.”

Reporting By Lauren Young; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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