2015 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism
Joan Biskupic, Janet Roberts and John Shiffman
“The Echo Chamber”
Reuters undertook the most comprehensive and innovative examination ever of the Supreme Court’s docket to scrutinize its most secretive process—how the justices select which cases they will hear.
They found that a small group of lawyers has secured special entrée to America’s court of last resort and given their clients—almost always the nation’s largest corporations—a disproportionate chance to influence the law of the land.
Their findings force us to think about what equal access to justice means in the United States today.
Reuters dissected more than 10,000 appeals from nine Supreme Court terms, involving nearly 17,000 attorneys. Among those lawyers, they identified a group that might best be called the elite of the elite: 66 lawyers who succeeded at getting their cases before the court at an incredible rate. Less than 1 percent of attorneys who sought the high court’s ear were involved in an astonishing 43 percent of the cases the justices chose to decide during that period.
To explicate these findings, the reporters interviewed approximately 200 of America’s top attorneys and constitutional law experts. And in an unprecedented coup for coverage of the publicity-shy Supreme Court, Biskupic got on-the-record interviews with eight of the nine sitting justices.
Informed by this rare combination of sophisticated data work and deep beat reporting, Reuters’ analysis suggests that the court has created a new criterion for determining whether to hear an appeal—a standard that goes beyond weighing the merits of a case and extends to judging the virtues of the lawyer who is bringing it.
The implications are profound. This small group of attorneys almost always represents corporate America. Workers or customers looking to challenge large companies are left out in the cold.
Moreover, the deference to this cadre of lawyers creates an insularity that stunts the development of jurisprudence and reinforces an ever-narrower view of the law.
Devoting an editorial to the series, The New York Times highlighted a disturbing conclusion: “As troubling as the court’s shrinking bar is the justices’ matter-of-fact acceptance of it.” The editors cited Justice Ginsburg’s revealing comment: “Business can pay for the best counsel money can buy… That’s just a reality.” As a result, the Times wrote, “the biggest cost of all may fall on regular Americans, for whom justice at the highest court in the land becomes less accessible every day.”
Joan Biskupic is an editor-in-charge for legal affairs at Reuters. She has covered the Supreme Court for more than twenty years and is the author of biographies on Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor, and of a political history on the Sonia Sotomayor appointment. Before joining Reuters in 2012, she was the Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post and for USA Today. She is a regular panelist on PBS’s Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and holds a law degree from Georgetown University.
Janet Roberts helps lead Thomson Reuters’ data journalism team, where she specializes in analytical reporting for news enterprise and investigative stories. She and other Reuters reporters won a 2013 Gerald Loeb Award for a probe of Chesapeake Energy that led to criminal antitrust charges and a change in executive leadership. Before joining Reuters in 2011, she spent almost seven years on the computer-assisted reporting team at the New York Times. A 1986 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Janet started her career at the Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., followed by a stint as the computer-assisted reporting editor at the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota.
John Shiffman is an investigative reporter for Reuters. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. He is a lawyer, a former associate director of the White House Fellows program, and a New York Times best-selling author.