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Oct. 28, 2009
Sotomayor Has Brought More Open Approach to U.S. Supreme Court Bench, Journalist Says

The late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once remarked to a group of journalists, “The difference between the Supreme Court and the other two branches of government is that we don’t need you people.”

Veteran U.S. Supreme Court journalist Tony Mauro recounted that story in a speech Tuesday evening by way of illustrating his belief that the Court is moving decidedly away from the mysterious and closed practices that have characterized the nation’s high court for more than 200 years and toward a more open and accessible approach to the public.

Mauro was the featured speaker at the Ohio Judicial Center for the second program in the Forum on the Law lecture series. He has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years and currently serves as Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal, American Lawyer Media, and law.com.

“The United States Supreme Court is changing its views and is turning its face to the public more than it did at that time,” Mauro said, referring to the Rehnquist Court.

One of the factors contributing to the change is the addition of the latest Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, Mauro said. Citing the late Justice Byron White’s famous observation that when a new justice joins the Court, it becomes an entirely new Court, Mauro said “This might be one of the most dramatic transitions we have seen.”

While some have predicted that Justice Sotomayor will probably not affect the Court dramatically because she likely will follow the general judicial philosophy of her predecessor Justice David Souter, Mauro said he believes Sotomayor’s radically different life experiences will have a major impact.

“There is considerable evidence that she will go her own way,” he said noting her professional experience as a judge, a federal prosecutor and a private attorney. “She is Hispanic, and English is not her first language. She grew up in the Bronx, has diabetes, and goes to Karaoke bars. In other words, she is a far cry from David Souter, an almost hermit-like Yankee from New Hampshire.”

While it remains to be seen how Justice Sotomayor’s jurisprudence will differ from Justice Souter’s, Mauro said it is clear that her approach to the question of openness and accessibility will be much different.

Mauro noted that Justice Souter once remarked that cameras would be allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court “over my dead body,” and was famous for rejecting almost all media requests, even once politely rejecting a request by Mauro for an interview about the Boston Red Sox.

By contrast, Mauro said that Sotomayor granted a television interview her first week on the bench in which she told of crying when she received the phone call from President Barack Obama asking her to accept the nomination to the Court.

Other changes at the Court are bringing more openness and accessibility too, Mauro said.

All of the other Justices on the bench have recently granted television interviews to C-Span for a documentary series on the Court; Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have both been on recent book tours; and Chief Justice John Roberts has allowed for the same-day release of oral argument transcripts.

“The more people learn about the Court, the more they will understand it and feel pretty good about it as an institution, especially in this incredible information age that we live in,” Mauro said.

He closed by stressing that from an insider’s perspective, he has the utmost respect for the institution he has covered for three decades. “In my many years of covering the Court, my admiration has only grown. This is an institution that manages to get it right and get it fairly done almost all of the time.”

Mauro has covered the Supreme Court since 1979, first for Gannett News Service and USA TODAY and then, since January 2000, for Legal Times, which merged with its sibling publication the National Law Journal in 2009. He is also a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.

He is the author of Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court, published in its second edition in December 2005 by Congressional Quarterly Press. He also has written several law review articles and contributed chapters to several books. The most recent is A Good Quarrel: America’s Top Legal Reporters Share Stories from Inside the Supreme Court, published in April 2009 by the University of Michigan Press.

Washingtonian magazine included Mr. Mauro in its list of the top 50 journalists in Washington in 2001 and 2005. He serves on the executive committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the advisory board of the World Press Freedom Committee. He is also on the advisory board for Georgetown University Law Center’s Master of Studies in Law program for journalists.

Mr. Mauro received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The Forum on the Law lecture series brings together the legal and judicial communities to explore topics of interest. In April, Professor Linda Przybyszewski recounted the 1873 “Bible War” case that helped frame the national debate about church/state relations well into the 20th Century during the court’s first legal forum. The event, which drew an audience of almost 200, was co-hosted by the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society.

“It is our hope that this ongoing lecture series will further engage the public and enhance an appreciation for our legal system,” said Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer. “While the first event centered on a historic legal topic, Mr. Mauro’s session achieved another objective by also focusing on contemporary issues.”

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Columbus Bar Foundation and Capital University Law School.

Shirley Mays, associate dean of academic affairs for Capital University Law School, joined the Chief Justice in welcoming Mauro.

Contact: Chris Davey or Bret Crow at 614.387.9250.