“Times” Journalist Talks Law

By Emily Blackner
News Editor

Journalist Lincoln Caplan, a member of the New York Times editorial board, discussed his career covering the Supreme Court at an event sponsored by the C.V. Starr center. - Photo courtesy of Kathy Thorton

From the halls of justice to the halls of learning, Lincoln Caplan has left his mark. The noted legal scholar and journalist visited Washington College on Feb. 28 for a talk entitled “Covering the Supreme Court.”

The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience hosted the event, along with the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture, and the pre-law program. Adam Goodheart, the director of the C.V. Starr Center, introduced Caplan to the crowd seated in the Egg for the 5 p.m. event, which included students, faculty, and community members.

“He brings a broadly humanist approach to the law,” Goodheart said.

Caplan has been covering the courts for many years, beginning during the Richard Nixon administration and continuing through today. He has written for a number of publications, including the “New Republic,” the “New Yorker,” and “US News and World Report.” He was a founding editor of the journal “Legal Affairs” and also an adviser to “The Atavist,” a digital publication that has found great success with its news delivery system. Currently, he is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, where he drafts the unsigned editorials about the Supreme Court and its decisions.

Additionally, he helped to launch a non-profit firm to raise money for education and youth programs and has written five books about the courts.

Caplan began his talk by using two forms of print media, the book “Gideon’s Trumpet” and the SCOTUS blog to illustrate the change he’s seen in the public’s perception of the Supreme Court. “Gideon’s Trumpet,” written about the Gideon v. Wainwright decision focusing on the right to legal counsel, was written with a “reverence to the Supreme Court as an institution and the role [of justice] and the men who fill it,” according to Caplan.

In contrast, the SCOTUS blog uses the “complicated view that public has of [the Supreme Court] today. There’s a sense of it as a political institution, so they treat it as one,” with less inherent reverence, he said.

“Our confidence in it has dropped significantly One factor is what it decides, but another is how we maintain that confidence,” said Caplan.

In spite of this perception, Caplan says that the Supreme Court isn’t overly politicized. While many of the Justices have a “comfort with the overlap of law and politics, Chief Justice [John] Roberts is punctilious about doing law and justice,” he said.

“There are many more cases before the court now that require application of the Constitution.” But, “when you look at what the court does, it’s deciding 75 cases as opposed to 150, and it’s still engaging in law-think. This is the most interesting court to cover in my lifetime,” he said.

A major topic brought up repeatedly during the discussion was the Citizen’s United case, which held that money is speech protected under the Fist Amendment and that corporations are free to donate to political candidates. Caplan said that for this case, “how the Court decided is as important as what the Court decided.”

“No party had raised the Constitution question, there was no record on which they based the decision,” he said. “It relates to the ethics issue in that it reinforces the sense that we can’t trust their impartiality.”

Caplan’s experience also gave him the ability to speak about the dynamics of the Court and the relationships the justices have with each other.

“It’s collegial in a formal sense, because you have to get to five [justices agreeing for a majority] but it functions like nine separate law firms,” he said.

Caplan also shared his impressions about the individual justices and their personalities and values. But he also noted that they still manage to surprise him despite his relative familiarity.

“At some point writing some editorial I’ve been surprised by every one of them,” he said.

Audience members also asked questions about this aspect of Caplan’s career. He explained the process the editorial review board goes through in deciding what pieces to print and what those pieces should say to represent the views of the New York Times as a paper.

He also offered encouragement to aspiring journalists in the crowd.

“You don’t have to wait in line.  It’s the most exciting time to become a journalist since I became one,” he said. This is due in part to the changing business models in the industry.

After the talk, students, faculty members, and certain other guests were invited to the Customs House for a dinner and the opportunity to continue the discussion with Caplan, which included analysis of further court cases and the possible impact of the 2012 elections on the Supreme Court, which Caplan said was an important consideration.

“The culture of the Supreme Court spreads across our country,” he said.

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