Antonin Scalia’s passing over the weekend was just the second death of a sitting Supreme Court justice since 1954. What’s more, it comes during a presidential election year, a fact that is invigorating judicial activists and propelling both Republicans and Democrats into a breakneck feud over who should get to nominate Scalia’s replacement. It holds the potential to not only reorient power in an ideologically divided court, but also to extend significantly President Obama’s legacy.
From a standing start on Saturday afternoon, Washington media quickly vaulted into nuanced examinations of the complex legal philosophy of Constitutional textualism, popularized by Scalia and influential in the country’s legal framework. The media’s analysis was remarkably even-handed despite the jurist’s far-right ideology. And the breadth of their coverage: of the man, the judicial system, the political fallout, and the country was universally impressive. For their collective performance on a surprise weekend story, news organizations deserve special recognition for the efforts: a CJR Hit.
Outside of especially contentious rulings, the judiciary is the forgotten branch of government in much national political coverage. It lacks the confrontation inherent to Congress and the power and celebrity of the presidency. Still, news organizations have reacted nimbly to Scalia’s unforeseen passing, providing legal, historical, and political analyses to remind Americans how the judicial branch—and the Supreme Court in particular—interacts with its oftentimes more entertaining counterparts.
It’s unlikely another jurist’s death would have led to such educational coverage. Scalia led an effort to wholly alter how the nation’s laws are interpreted, favoring a strict adherence to the Founders’ words. That legal framework may be difficult to convey to an audience through abstract historical accounts. But obituaries and first-day analyses deftly referenced three decades of Scalia arguments en route to explaining this broader philosophy through clear, specific examples and in graphics, video, radio and television.
Despite the complexity of the topic, early analysis also touched on real-life policy implications of this legal philosophy. A number of outlets dissected how Scalia’s death might affect forthcoming rulings in the court’s current session, such as the White House’s proposed policy to counteract climate change. Such coverage serves as a reminder of both the power of the Supreme Court and how legislative gridlock has led to governance through executive action.
Political reporters have focused on what Scalia’s death means for the 2016 presidential campaign. While such pieces risk falling blindly into the election-year horse race, they illustrate what votes in November mean in practice. “[U]ltimately Obama—or the next President—will have no more consequential role than choosing Scalia’s replacement,” The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote in one of many pieces plainly stating the news’ importance.
All of these strains of analysis have been advanced by academics writing for mainstream news organizations, one of the more interesting publishing trends in recent years. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog may be the best example of this digestible expert analysis. Scalia’s death was like many other breaking news situations in that it illustrated the value of such quick commentary, which tends to focus on where a particular event fits into history. That’s all the more important given how unfamiliar most news consumers are with legal trends or the high court’s changing political dynamics.
Such subject matter is not particularly easy to report on and analyze. Yet media outlets did an admirable job of reacting this weekend, informing the public on integral, if not made for virality, functions of government.David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.