The American Media and the US Supreme Court – An Inside Look / Interview with Dahlia Lithwick
Dahlia Lithwick, an American journalist who covers the US Supreme Court for Slate magazine, will be teaching a course this year at the faculty. The course examines the attitude of the American media toward the Supreme Court – an attitude Lithwick describes as “a case of Stockholm Syndrome.”
Every year the Law Faculty at the Hebrew University invites several guest lecturers from overseas to teach courses for the students on selected subjects. The guests come from diverse fields of law and include judges and academics. One of this year’s guest lecturers is the journalist Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor with the well-known online magazine Slate. Lithwick, who was the first internet journalist to cover the US Supreme Court, will teach a course on the special relationship between the court and the staff of journalists that report on it.
What is unique about the journalistic reporting in the United States?
“The American press is biased in favor of the Supreme Court and the myth the court seeks to project.”
What do you mean?
“The myth of the justices as apolitical beings – as if when they put on their black gowns they no longer have an ideology or agenda and merely decide according to the law.”
Dahlia mentions in particular the confirmation hearings of justices in the US Supreme Court, events she describes as a “week-long media circus.”
What is the origin of this attitude?
“Americans are very romantic, particularly when it comes to the Supreme Court,” she explains. “It’s a kind of secular religion. Even the Supreme Court building has the architectural appearance of a church or Greek temple. I think Israelis would laugh if they saw it.”
Is this image a good thing or a bad thing?
“Both. It’s good because it strengthens the independence of the judiciary. But at the same time it is unrealistic to imagine that judges do not have their own ideology. We need to be critical and to recognize that the court has a strong influence, precisely because of its romantic perception as a symbol.”
How does the American press shape this image?
“It protects the myth,” Dahlia claims. “You have to understand that we are talking about a relatively small group of journalists, on the one hand, but one that is extremely focused. There are no more than 40 or so journalists who report on the Supreme Court, and most of them have been doing it for decades.”
You are yourself part of the staff of journalists that reports on the Supreme Court. How do you assess the working process from the inside?
“Remember that the Supreme Court in the United States is very different from what you are familiar with in Israel. It processes about 70 cases a year, and it is only active for few months a year. You might think that we have a lot of spare time on our hands, but we make up for it by preparing in-depth reports. In order to report properly on the Supreme Court, I really think it is important to read all the material, all the decisions and rulings on any given subject.”
How would you characterize the journalists’ attitude toward the court?
“I’d describe it as a case of ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’ They are trapped in the myth. There is a kind of gentlemen’s agreement that the journalist is committed to protecting the Supreme Court’s legitimacy and image.”
How is this approach manifested?
“One way is the selection of subjects to be covered. The journalists report on the Supreme Court as if the law itself is a living entity. The judges do not form part of the reporting. There is a kind of silent agreement that any report about the judges as individuals is considered gossip rather than real journalism.”
Female Judging and Male Judging
At the same time as teaching the course on the attitude of the media toward the US Supreme Court, Lithwick is also writing a book examining the attitude of the American public toward the women Supreme Court justices. “Israelis may take this for granted, for the situation is different with Americans,” she suggests.”Today, there are three women justices, and in the court’s entire history there have been just four. This subject is the focus of lively debate among the American public.”
What specific question are you exploring?
“The question is whether women judge in a different way from men. This question arose in the past when Justice O’Connor was the first female justice on the Supreme Court. Academics discussed the question whether female judging would be different. But then Justice Ginsburg was appointed, and it emerged that she did not agree with Justice O’Connor on anything.”
Is this line of discourse still being pursued?
“Sure. When they asked President Obama for his opinion of the Supreme Court, he argued that the court lacks empathy. Many people connected this comment with femininity, and it’s true that Obama has appointed two female justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.”
Basically this brings us back to the question as to whether justices have an agenda.
“Right. Until now, Americans have not tended to examine the justices’ background too closely – whether Catholic justices make different decisions than their Protestant or Jewish peers. But clearly it has an impact. Justice Ginsburg is due to retire, and people have asked whether it is important that her replacement also be a woman, which brings us back to the concept of female judging. I am examining whether and how women judge differently, and whether this is a good thing.”
Lithwick was born and raised in Canada but later moved to the United States, studying at Yale and Stanford before beginning work in a law firm specializing in divorce law. “I found the work very unpleasant,” she recalls, “and eventually I quit. I remained jobless for a brief time until I happened to be in Washington DC while the Supreme Court was hearing the Microsoft antitrust case. Slate magazine asked me to cover the case, and later I became a regular reporter. I’ve been covering the Supreme Court for 13 years now.”
What made you decide to teach the course?
“This isn’t my first position as a teacher. I have already taught similar versions of my courses at University of Georgia and University of Virginia. I like teaching. Students have an ambivalent attitude toward the court and its ethos. They know that it’s unrealistic to expect judges to be completely neutral, but they would still like to believe that this is the case.”
Why did you come to Israel?
“For several reasons. Firstly, I have two children aged 7 and 9 and I wanted them to spend a year in Israel. My parents are also here, so they get to spend a year with their grandchildren. Another reason is because of my book – I knew that if I stayed in America I wouldn’t get any writing done.”
What about the course?
“Professor David Enoch heard that I was planning to spend the year in Israel and invited me to teach the course. I was really pleased, because I knew that otherwise I would just spend the whole day at home working on my book, and I’d slowly lose my mind.”