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Sunday, July 2, 2006
Twaddle masquerading as news
By Bryan S. (guestblogger) @ 5:25 pm

This story: “Roberts is at Court’s Helm, but He Isn’t Yet in Control” is a perfect example of the type of “news” that sometimes irks me about the venerable New York Times. It’s not news, really. It’s not even properly labeled as “analysis.” And it ends up with all the substance of the article buried beneath an introduction that is pure blather.

WASHINGTON, July 1 — As the dust settled on a consequential Supreme Court term, the first in 11 years with a change in membership and the first in two decades with a new chief justice, one question that lingered was whether it was now the Roberts court, in fact as well as in name.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was clearly in charge, presiding over the court with grace, wit and meticulous preparation. But he was not in control.

This could be because “control” is pretty much a fiction of those who watch the court, rather than the actual members of the court. This fiction fits in with the conflict frame that is so popular in much of journalism - the court is like a game, in which two teams struggle to gain the upper hand.

Obviously, the law and relationship between 9 individual justices is much more complex than this. But that doesn’t stop the Times’ writer from jumping atop the chair of history and making claims like this:

Or perhaps it was more accurately seen as the Stevens court, reflecting the ability of John Paul Stevens, the senior associate justice in tenure as well as in age, to deliver a majority in the case for which the term will go down in history, the decision on military commissions that rejected the Bush administration’s view of open-ended presidential authority. (emphasis added)

Now, granted I’m no historian, but it seems to me to be a little early to decide which decision will mark this term of the court. But not to the Times. Obviously, any decision that plays against the administration is seen as something of historical significance beyond anything else.

I’d prefer to wait a while and see what plays out in the coming years. It is just as likely that another case from this term will end up being the one that people remember.

And while there are a couple of outside sources quoted as statistics (statistics about supreme court votes!), there are no direct quotes in the entire article, which spans over five pages on the web. So the writer is making this assumption about Roberts’ lack of control on the court entirely on her own - a dangerous way to make an assumption about the Supreme Court.

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