EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four interviews with reporters who have made a specialty of covering the U.S. Supreme Court at a crucible time in the history of the Court and the press.
By Trevor PyleLawrence Hurley was part of a team, with Reuters colleagues Andrea Januta, Andrew Chung and Jaimi Dowdell, that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series on qualified immunity and how it protects police. Hurley is a seasoned legal affairs reporter, having covered the Supreme Court at Reuters from 2013 until earlier this year, when he joined NBC. While still with Reuters, he gave an NPR interview about the leak of the draft of the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson, which undid 49 years of legalized abortion in the U.S.
Hurley is one of four veteran Supreme Court reporters who answered questions from Storyboard about the challenges and strategies of covering complex and significant rulings under intense deadline pressure. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
I’m no Supreme Court historian, but it seems clear this term — with cases on gun control, immigration, affirmative action, separation of church and state and more — is remarkable, both in terms of the impact of rulings but also how those rulings are being announced and, in the case of Dobbs, being leaked in advance. Beat coverage, including yours, has also been remarkable: insightful, clear and so fast. The question is whether, or how much of, the public is paying attention? When you write, who do you think about reaching, and how do you weigh the best way to reach them?
Supreme Court reporters, like those in other specialist beats, have a dual role. We carry out the traditional journalism function of telling people what is going on, but we are also educators in a sense because so many Americans are not very familiar with the Court and how it works. Unlike some courts in other countries, the Supreme Court does not go out of its way to explain its rulings and internal processes to the general public, leaving the press to fill in the blanks.
The recent decisions, especially the abortion blockbuster, appear to have broken through to the wider public in a way few rulings have in recent years. My view has always been that people should be paying more attention to what the Supreme Court is doing all the time, so the fact that they seem to be at the moment is probably a good thing.
In terms of how to reach readers, I think a key element is to demystify the Court and its internal processes and describe what it is doing in plain English. Nothing turns people off more than complex legalese.
How did you begin covering the Supreme Court?
After moving to the U.S. from the U.K. as a young and untested reporter, I struggled to find a job. I ended up covering legal affairs at the Daily Record in Baltimore. I felt then that if I built up some subject matter expertise it would hold me in good stead in a notoriously unstable industry. A couple of years later I got a job as a Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, another legal publication, where I initially covered Congress before taking over the Supreme Court beat in 2008. The experience I gained in that job led me to Greenwire, Reuters and now NBC News.
When you began reporting on the Court, what was the largest challenge the beat posed, and how did you approach that challenge?
For anyone new to the Court the challenge is the same: figuring out how the institution works so that you know what cases are up for consideration and when they are likely to be acted on. It is an opaque institution even when you’re in the press room. Often it is other reporters who are the best people to turn to and, luckily, it is a mostly collegial group. I’m still learning.
There are excellent Supreme Court reporters who studied law and excellent Supreme Court reporters who didn’t; you’re in the latter camp. Are there any ways you believe a non-legal background helps you in your current role? Or any way it creates obstacles?
I don’t really see that there is any advantage to having a law degree, but I don’t have a journalism degree either!
I think not having a legal education can maybe help in terms of communicating to a non-lawyer audience because you are less likely to assume that people know certain terms and concepts.
How do you prepare for these major decisions so you can turn a thorough story around so quickly? Do you make educated guesses on when a decision may be released? Do you pre-write based on what you believe to be likely outcomes?
The Supreme Court beat is one that requires a lot of homework and pre-writes are an essential part of covering it well. It’s just not possible to write coherently about breaking Supreme Court news without having prepared for it in advance, especially on days when there might be multiple big stories breaking at once.
Covering the Court is a bit like being in college. Each new term brings a new slate of cases that must be learned so that when the “exam” comes (ie. the ruling), you are prepared.
The Supreme Court seems like one the most opaque of the nation’s political institutions. Its operations are protected by secrecy; its justices give few interviews, and when they do it’s often in highly vetted environments. How does that create challenges for — or maybe free up? — those who write about the Court? How does it influence coverage of the Court as an institution?
There are many ways to skin a cat and the advantage of having a strong Supreme Court press corps is that reporters bring different skills and approaches to the role. My preference has been to focus on the practical impact of what the Court does and on the intersection of law and politics. Others have their own approaches, all of which have value.
Is there any journalism written about this term, or about a specific decision, you found particularly powerful?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “powerful” but obviously the Politico leak story was gobsmacking just because draft opinions did not traditionally leak. Time will tell if this is the start of a new trend or not.
Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.