How Do Top Supreme Court Watchers Prepare for the Big Day?

For legal journalists, the health-care ruling is the Super Bowl, World Series, and Olympics all rolled into one. Here's how they get ready.

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The media set up outside the Supreme Court on June 25. (Reuters)

Updated, 8:57 a.m.

No Supreme Court case has ever gotten as much attention as the challenge to the Affordable Care Act. That puts special pressure on the nation's Supreme Court watchers, the reporters and legal analysts whose job it will be to take an immensely complicated opinion, digest it immediately, and explain it in understandable terms to a highly polarized but mostly legally illiterate populace -- all within minutes of the announcement. Some Court watchers have been on the beat for decades, but beyond their intuition, none of them has any more foreknowledge of the ruling than the rest of the nation.

Like athletes psyching themselves up for a big game, everyone has their own strategy. We asked some top journalists what they're doing to get ready for the big moment -- pre-writing? napping? carboloading? They dished on their training regimen, their pre-game rituals, and a few dirty secrets.

Lyle Denniston, SCOTUSblog reporter, 54-year Court-reporting veteran, Internet icon

After having written pieces last night and this morning on the blog anticipating the ruling, I am spending the afternoon primarily preparing some background material on cases the Court granted on Monday that I will need for next term. Keeping up is a never-stopping treadmill.

As a longtime afternoon newspaper guy, I don't prewrite; takes the freshness out of it. I do plan to look back over a ten-part series on the health care law that I had on the blog last year, and I am going to skim the Eleventh Circuit's long opinion again just to get the flavor of a court opinion, especially on the mandate. If there's time, I also might re-read Jeff Sutton's opinion in the Sixth Circuit case, since he is such an unbelievably persuasive judge as well as such a graceful writer. And then I plan to be in bed by 10 p.m., since Tom [Goldstein, SCOTUSblog's publisher] has all of us due at the courthouse at 8:15. Unfortunately, I have to skip my 45 minutes of daily cardiac rehab exercise tomorrow in order to get to the court that early! That is an unhappy sacrifice for #teamlyle.

Joan Biskupic, Reuters legal reporter and biographer of Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia

I'm definitely pre-writing, then pre-writing some more. I'm re-reading the arguments on commerce clause, "necessary and proper," and taxing authority. I'm sketching out all sorts of scenarios. I've got extra apples in my bag for tomorrow. And I just checked to make sure I'm not low on aspirin.

Linda Greenhouse, former New York Times Supreme Court reporter; current senior research fellow at Yale Law School and New York Times Opinionator contributor

I guess you could say I've entered a zen-like state, enjoying a beautiful summer day here in New Haven, after just having posted my latest Opinionator column on the NYT website predicting that the court will uphold the ACA. My friends know that I'm a Thoroughbred racing fan who's been known to place a bet now and then and even occasionally cash a winning ticket.

Amy Howe, SCOTUSblog editor and attorney

It's a little crazy but some of it is probably just nervous energy. We did prewrite, but we did that a week ago. We didn't actually think there was going to be a decision until tomorrow. The busiest guy is probably our tech guy -- we have switched our live blog to a new site. That was a good dry run on Monday, with almost 100,000 on the blog. We feel pretty good about, and we're just going to cross our fingers. [Editor's note: SCOTUSblog has spent $25,000 on tech upgrades to prepare for a traffic onslaught.]

How many people do you have working tomorrow?

I'm thinking out loud ... Lyle, four lawyers, [manager] Kali Borkoski, and Max Mallory, our tech guy. Everyone will be full time. We're going to fire up the live blog at 8:45. We'll continue for a good chunk of the day.

Is it frustrating that there are these other major cases that no one's paying attention to?

I'm not sure we'd call it frustrating. This is so much fun. Alvarez is really jazzy -- can you lie about having military honors? It's an important 1st Amendment case, but it doesn't affect that many Americans. First American Financial is hugely important in terms of who can bring lawsuits. It could be a very important decision for the business community, and no one's going to pay attention! (laughs)

Mike Sacks, Huffington Post Supreme Court reporter

I've spent the last couple weeks working closely with my most excellent editors; training an intern to earn her ultimate resume bullet point; and answering questions from family, friends and strangers asking what the justices are going to do. My writing prep, which resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure story, is done.

Two years ago, I was camped out on the sidewalk overnight to see -- and later blog about -- Justice Stevens' last day of his nearly 35-year tenure. Tonight, I will sleep in my own bed, thankful that all my pavement pounding has ultimately landed me in the press section to witness this blockbuster term come to an historic end.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN and The New Yorker

I will reveal nothing, except that I really, really hope they don't start testing Supreme Court reporters for steroids.
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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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