Interview with Linda Greenhouse
by Kathleen M. Reade
“Linda Greenhouse is the nation’s preeminent authority on the thinking and actions of the U.S. Supreme Court.” declared Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center announcing that she would receive the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Ms. Greenhouse began her career at The New York Times in 1968. She has been reporting on the Supreme Court since 1978 with the exception of a two-year period in which she reported on Congress. She writes about the fascinating and diverse topics at the forefront of America’s justice system such as: abortion, death row issues, assisted suicide, gun laws, use of hallucinogenic tea by a religious group, eminent domain, medical marijuana use, trial of terrorist detainees, the court in transition, and individual justices.
Ms. Greenhouse won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her “consistently illuminating” coverage of the Supreme Court. She graduated from Radcliff College and received a Master of Studies in Law from Yale Law School. She also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Brown University. Among other awards, she has received the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
She has been a regular panelist of Washington Week on PBS since 1980. Additionally, she has been an invited lecturer at such prestigious venues as Duke University Law School, State University of New York, Harvard Law School, Indiana University School of Law, Brown University, and Columbia.
In 2005 she published her first book, Becoming Harry Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey to acclaim such as this from Vernon Ford in the American Library Association’s Booklist:
Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times, was the first print reporter to have access to the personal and official papers of Justice Blackmun, who died in 1999, five years after retiring from the Supreme CourtGreenhouse draws on personal papers to show Blackmun’s personal journey, from entries in a childhood diary to the musings of a young lawyer hungering for partnership. This is an absorbing look at the personal and official concerns of a man who helped to shape American law and society.
and from Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe:
Greenhouse, in a jewel fully worthy of her reputation as the best journalist ever to have covered the work of the Supreme Court, proves to be as able a biographer as she is a reporter. ’Becoming Justice Blackmun’ is a brilliant and penetrating study of how unsought challenge and controversy can, in the most modest of men, bring out a measure of true greatness.
How did you initially become interested in journalism? Did you grow up among readers and writers?
I did not grow up among writers, but I certainly did grow up among readers. I grew up in Hamden, Conn., outside New Haven. My household was somewhat unusual in receiving the New York Times every day. My mother was a New Yorker with a lively interest in public affairs. My father was a doctor who was also interested in what was going on in the world. So I certainly got the idea early on that journalism was an honorable and interesting activity. I started writing for a school newspaper in junior high school.
You have been an insider with a fascinating view of an entity that affects the lives of us all. You are engaged in scholarly and serious business. Have you found instances of humor along the way?
Humor – I’m sure I’ve heard the occasionally witty quip, but I don’t think of myself as working in particularly humor-filled surroundings. Justice Antonin Scalia has a reputation as a wit, but I find that his wit too often comes at the expense of the lawyers who are just trying to get through their arguments; I don’t find it particularly amusing.
How did you join “The New York Times” and what led you to begin covering the Supreme Court in 1978?
I joined the New York Times as an intern right out of college in 1968. James Reston, the columnist, hired a new college graduate every year to do research and other tasks for him. I was lucky enough to get hired. After my year, I became a reporter on the metropolitan desk in New York. I was eventually sent to our Albany bureau, covering the governor and legislature in the New York State capital. I was bureau chief for two years there, 1976 and 1977, and then asked for a transfer to Washington. I thought I might cover Congress, but the paper needed someone at the court, so that was my new assignment.
Please tell us about your book “Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey.”
My book grew out of a series of articles I wrote for the Times in March 2004, when Justice Blackmun’s voluminous collection of papers opened to the public at the Library of Congress. The Blackmun family had given me a two-month head start in the collection so that I could write a coherent account of his life without having to go through 500,000 documents on a daily deadline.
Did you discover anything that surprised you about Justice Blackmun’s personality or how he reached his decisions?
There was much that surprised me, because he left a very lengthy diary that he started at the age of 11 and wrote in until he was in his 30’s. So I got a pretty intimate look at the man and his personality. I was particularly surprised by the intensity of his friendship with his childhood friend, Warren Burger, who later became chief justice.
You lecture about the Supreme Court and its relationship to modern culture. How do the Supreme Court justices gain their perceptions of everyday life and an understanding of the effects of their rulings?
The justices don’t necessarily have a very astute view of the impact of their rulings. But they live pretty normal lives – they drive their own cars and live in their own houses; their salaries are not huge, and they live on the economy in an expensive city. So in that sense, they are not as sheltered as some of our more political policy-makers. But basically they learn about the cases from the briefs.
Being a long time scholar and observer of the Supreme Court, how do you feel the events of September 11 and the subsequent anthrax threat affected the Supreme Court Justices and their view of the world?
Certainly the events of 9/11 had an impact on the justices but as we can see from their decisions in cases like Hamdi, Rasul, and last month, Hamdan, they retained the ability to assess the situation as judges in our constitutional tradition.
There have been drastic changes in the makeup of the Court recently. What is your analysis of the change, and changes to come, in the dynamics and style of the Court?
I wouldn’t say there have been “drastic” changes. Two new justices arrived during the last term – the first time since 1971 that there have been two new members of the court during a single term. The Roberts court is obviously a work in progress. It will evolve over time. I wrote in the Times in my assessment of the term that John Roberts is in charge but not yet in control, because Justice Kennedy holds the balance of power on many important cases. Stylistically, the arguments are a bit more relaxed and I think the justices are talking to one another more at conference than they did under the tight leadership of Chief Justice Rehnquist.
What do you perceive to be the hottest issues coming up to the court and can you give us any predictions?
The hottest issues are abortion and affirmative action. The court will revisit the “partial birth” abortion issue in the new term, and will hear two cases, one from Louisville and the other from Seattle, on the permissible use of race in drawing district lines in public school systems. I don’t make predictions.
How do you feel televising Supreme Court hearings would impact the court?
I think the biggest impact television would have would be to make the justices recognizable to the general public. That’s why I don’t think it will happen.
How do you prepare for your sessions as a panelist on PBS ’s Washington Week?
I don’t prepare specifically for Washington Week. I am invited on the show to talk about something that I have covered that week, so it doesn’t take extra preparation.
Please tell us about the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and your work on the advisory committee.
The Schlesinger Library holds the most extensive collection on women’s history in the United States. It is used by researchers from around the world, and is a wonderful institution. It is part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the successor institution to Radcliffe College, my alma mater. As a member of the library’s council (as it is now called, no longer the advisory committee) I go to meetings twice a year at which we discuss issues facing the library, including priorities in collecting and trends in current scholarship.
What prompted you to write about the recent tragic incident involving Barbero at the Preakness Stakes?
The editors of the Week in Review section, knowing that I am a longtime racing fan, had the idea of inviting me to write a little essay on that sad event, and I was happy to be able to accept.
What do you do when you find yourself with “free” time?
I like to spend time with my husband and 20-year-old daughter. We are visiting friends in the Adirondacks in upstate New York this summer. My sister, who is an anthropology professor at Princeton, has a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and we always try to get there as well. I enjoy travel and go to Mexico every winter with a group of women friends. We go to a spa and have a good time for a week.
With the success of your first book, what book might we look forward to next?
I don’t have another book in the works. My day job covering the court is quite consuming. If another fascinating project fell into my lap, I would certainly consider it, but I’m not out looking for one. •