On Monday, I wondered why the media, which had spent the last few days telling us how staged and predictable Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings would be, decided nonetheless to provide blanket coverage of the week’s proceedings, with the cable news networks showing them live and seemingly every self-respecting news Web site hosting a live blog. I spent Tuesday afternoon reading through live accounts of the day’s hearing from five different publications. And after seeing what The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo, and SCOTUSblog had to say, I can report that it is indeed possible to write an illuminating, informative live blog of these hearings, but that expertise in the subject is a necessary—but not a sufficient—condition.
First, a quick summary of the day. Facing occasionally tough questioning from Republican senators, Sotomayor backed down from her infamous “wise Latina” formulation, saying it was a “rhetorical flourish that fell flat” and “was bad.” She also did not embrace President Barack Obama’s statement that “empathy” is a key part of being a judge. With respect to the issues, she said she considered access to abortion to be settled precedent but mostly declined to offer her views, so as not to prejudge cases that may appear before the Supreme Court. All in all, it was the expected confirmation-hearing ballet, and Sotomayor definitely did not suffer a “meltdown.”
So how did it come across on the live blogs? It depends on which one you were reading. The least valuable efforts came from The New York Times and, especially, Politico, which were mostly devoted to recording what was happening inside the hearing room (augmented, at Politico, with lots of video). A little analysis was offered; the Times blog, for example, explained how Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, opened the questioning with controversial topics in order to give Sotomayor a chance to respond to a friendly audience. But there was little that a reasonably savvy reader—like, say, a person who was interested in reading a live blog of a Supreme Court confirmation hearing—wouldn’t have figured out on her own. And with a few exceptions, the analysis offered was of a political, not a legal, nature. That’s probably because both publications assigned political, rather than legal, reporters to write the blogs.
The benefit of legal expertise was apparent in some of the other blogs. At Talking Points Memo, guest blogger Andrew Pincus, an appellate litigator who has tried cases before the Supreme Court, took a different approach, offering lengthy (by live blog standards) posts after each set of questions. Not surprisingly, given the site on which he was writing, Pincus was clearly sympathetic to Sotomayor and skeptical about some of the GOP questioning. But his knowledge of the law, and of the Court’s history, produced fruitful material for readers of any political stripe.
In his first three posts after the questioning began, Pincus noted that other circuit courts have reached decisions similar to Sotomayor’s in Ricci, used Justice Stevens’s dissent in an unrelated case to discuss the role of life experience in judging, and noted that three quarters of Second Circuit cases are resolved by unpublished orders, rather than full opinions. These points all represent knowledge gleaned from outside the hearing room—the sort that was mostly absent from the Times and Politico accounts.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, showed that new-media, advocacy-oriented publications aren’t the only ones that can bring expertise to bear. The Post’s blog was a tag-team effort featuring legal reporter Jerry Markon, who brought the knowledge, and congressional reporter Ben Pershing, who provided narration and occasional comic relief. As Markon noted a few times today, he’s read Sotomayor’s opinions—nearly 900 pages worth of them—and clearly formed some judgments about her, among them that she is extraordinary detailed in her work, that she is “skeptical of corporations,” and that she is “slightly to the left of other Democratic appointed judges.”
All these conclusions had been reported previously, but the live blog offered them in capsule form, and in one place. Markon’s prior reporting also allowed him to quickly fact-check statements from the senators, and to point out what was not being said in the hearing room. He noted, for example, that Chuck Schumer’s focus on a Sotomayor dissent in which she came down against family members of airplane crash victims—part of a strange effort to show she can be just as heartless as the next judge—obscured a broader trend in her jurisprudence. The sharp commentary, in turn, produced some good questions from readers. As the afternoon wore on, it was the Post blog that I found myself returning to not out of professional obligation, but genuine curiosity. Who knows? I might even check it out again Wednesday.
I wish I could say the same for the effort from SCOTUSblog, whose founder, Akin Gump partner Tom Goldstein, has been developing something of a media profile lately. Goldstein declared two weeks ago that the hearings would be a “complete non-event,” so his decision to host a live-blog seems a little curious. The results are a little curious, too. Goldstein and his co-blogger Kristina Moore offered a minute-by-minute narration of what was being said in the hearing room, interrupted occasionally by interesting analysis or sharp judgments and more often by comments on Al Franken’s note-taking, Chuck Grassley dozing off, and the general pointlessness of the proceedings.
A few direct quotations: “In this meaningless debate, [Sotomayor] is a bit ahead.” “No one here has any idea what’s going on, or cares.” “She’s still going, I think. I kind of dozed off there for a minute.” And my favorite, which came during Sotomayor’s colloquy with Orrin Hatch: “No one without a law degree has a remote clue about what’s going on.” It was my hope, as one of the benighted, non-JD holding people out there, that the accomplished lawyers at SCOTUSblog would help me get my bearings. But after reading through their output for the day, I remained mostly clueless.