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WSJ’s Bravin pulls back the Supreme Court curtain

September 23, 2014


Jess Bravin offers a Tulane Law School audience insights into covering the U.S. Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal.

SCOTUS SaraNorval Question

Tulane 2L Sara Norval asks the Wall Street Journal's Jess Bravin about the tension between speed and accuracy in covering major new Supreme Court rulings.

Photos by Tracie Morris Schaefer 

Do you have special insight into the Supreme Court justices’ personalities?

Do you expect them to allow cameras to videotape their oral arguments soon?

Oh, and would you report it if you knew a justice had an abortion or an affair with a reporter?

The Supreme Court doesn’t get easy questions, and neither did Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin during a full-house presentation at Tulane Law School Sept. 19.

Associate Professor Amy Gajda, a former TV journalist, quizzed Bravin about privacy considerations and court secrecy, while students asked about the personal interplay on an ideologically divided court and the tension between speed and accuracy in reporting highly anticipated rulings. 

“They don’t go play baseball together,” Bravin quipped about the nine justices.

But they do, for instance, “like to have fake trials for fun,” such as when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dressed in “an F Troop uniform” for a mock trial of Gen. George Custer and Justice Anthony Kennedy recruited actor Mel Gibson for a trial of Hamlet.

Because the justices don’t like to discuss their work with the news media, Bravin said he tries to find other ways of illuminating them. That made it “almost like found art” when he stumbled across C-SPAN footage from a book party for Justice Clarence Thomas, with justices and other Washington dignitaries engaged in small talk.

Bravin said that reporting on such personal details as an affair or abortion would depend on how the information was obtained and its relevance to the public interest. And, he said, “the decision would be made at the highest level of the news organization.”

With rulings, audio and transcripts widely available, cameras in the Supreme Court would provide more of a symbolic advance than a practical one, he said. “In terms of thoughtful study, I don’t think it will have as much impact.”


Tulane Law Professor Amy Gajda questions Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin on Sept. 19.

In fact, he joked, “everyone could re-enact arguments in their living room the same day if they wanted” because of documentation that’s already accessible.

Bravin — who also has covered the United Nations and written a book about special courts used for trials of terrorism suspects — has won awards for his coverage of the International Criminal Court, the legal response to 9/11 and the Supreme Court case involving the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

“The main thing that the Supreme Court press corps can do to benefit the public now,” he said, “is to find the real issues of the people behind these cases.”

With a new term set to start Oct. 6, what’s the biggest upcoming case?

Same-sex marriage, he said. Several petitions are pending before the justices, and they’re widely expected to take up the issue soon. “That will overshadow all the other stuff that’s there,” Bravin said. 


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