Journalist Spotlight: Joan Biskupic on the Reporting Behind “The Echo Chamber” Series

11 Dec 2014

Joan Biskupic, Legal Affairs Editor-in-ChargeOn Monday, Reuters published an investigative series on “The Echo Chamber,” detailing the small group of lawyers that has outsized influence at the U.S. Supreme Court. The series reported that 66 of the 17,000 lawyers who petitioned the court over a nine year period accounted for 43 percent of the cases the court agreed to hear. About half of these lawyers have worked for the justices and some socialize with them. The examination, by Legal Affairs Editor-in-Charge Joan Biskupic, Enterprise Reporter John Shiffman and Deputy Editor of Data Janet Roberts, was widely covered in the press, including by The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Financial Times, Esquire and SCOTUS Blog, and Joan also appeared on PBS NewsHour to discuss the topic. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Joan, who recently published a biography on Justice Sonia Sotomayor, offers an inside look at the reporting behind the series.

Q. How did you get started on this story?

A. We’d noticed that fewer lawyers, a core group of elite, seemed to be getting more of their clients’ cases heard by America’s court of last resort. We wanted to see if these lawyers and their clients had a disproportionate chance to influence the law of the land.

Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?

A. Janet Roberts, our deputy editor for data, went through more than 10,000 appeals over a nine year period. We looked at oral-argument records going back further. I interviewed the justices and scores of lawyers. John Shiffman, a reporter on our Global Enterprise team, pursued law firms and their power before the court.

Q. What was the hardest part about reporting this story?

A. We wanted the views of all players in the orbit of the Supreme Court, including the justices. Eight of the nine spoke to us on the record. Only Chief Justice John Roberts declined. Roberts happens to be the one justice who was once a star of the elite bar. He might have been best able to address what we discovered: that the court essentially had added a new criterion to whether it takes an appeal, one that goes beyond the merits of a case – to the merits of the lawyer bringing it.

Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?

A. I thrive on discovering news that matters, finding out what people don’t know, and then telling everyone. I am especially driven to understand and explain the inner-workings of one of our most mysterious and important institutions. My mantra is: This is your Supreme Court.

Q. What do you find most fulfilling about covering the legal affairs beat?

A. Age and experience have downsides, to be sure, but these days I’m glad that I have logged so many years in that magnificent marble courtroom and had such access to the nine chambers. I’ve been able to write books about the justices, and I think I truly understand this Roberts bench. But my second mantra is: I’m always learning.

Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?

A. No. I have a law degree and have kept up my D.C. bar membership, and always thought that I could use that if I tired of journalism. But journalism is simply too exciting and satisfying. I am probably wasting thousands of dollars in bar dues.

Q. Anything else you’d like to share?

A. I’ve worked for other large news organizations that were able to devote great resources to legal coverage. But in doing this project, I saw a distinct Reuters commitment to understanding what happens at the apex of our judiciary. The leadership behind “The Echo Chamber” made it happen.

To read the latest from Joan Biskupic, click here.