On May 23, SCOTUSblog comes to Capitol Hill to make its case for the congressional press credentials it says are key to its coverage of Supreme Court nominations and hearings related to the court's budget.
The outcome, however, could extend beyond the case of SCOTUSblog, because it concerns the rules under which all journalists are credentialed to cover Congress and addresses recurring issues the rapidly changing media industry contends with.
More immediately at stake, though, are the congressional credentials of veteran reporter Lyle Denniston, who has been a journalist of the law for more than 66 years. All but 10 of those years have been spent covering the highest court in the land. Denniston has covered one-quarter of all of the Supreme Court justices, and he has reported on the entire careers on the bench of 10 of the justices.
Denniston is SCOTUSblog's full-time reporter at the court and was issued a daily gallery credential through the blog in 2013, after a pursuit that spanned many years and required many modifications to the popular site to meet strict guidelines governing journalists' access to the Capitol.
The Standing Committee of Correspondents for the Daily Press, an elected panel of five journalists that denied SCOTUSblog's application for credentials in April, is giving SCOTUSblog the chance to appeal its decision during a public meeting on May 23 at 10:30 a.m. in the Capitol Visitor Center. While appeals to the press galleries' credentialing decisions occur occasionally, the process is not formal and it rarely plays out in public. The journalists' decision to reject SCOTUSblog — a site that's won a Peabody Award and journalism accolades from the National Press Club — has reverberated throughout the industry.
Columbia Journalism Review author Jonathan Peters, for instance, published a piece alleging that the committee's decision, while complicated, was "incorrect" and criticizing the decision-makers for refusing to discuss their rationale.
Siobhan Hughes, Capitol Hill reporter for the Wall Street Journal and chairwoman of the committee, declined to comment to CQ Roll Call on the merits of the case or a potential timeline for the appeal.
"Because I want it to be a fair process — so we don't prejudge or try to engage in the sort of pre-hearing publicity that could influence the outcome — I haven't been saying much ahead of the hearing," Hughes wrote in an email.
In order to reconsider the decision, one of the five journalists on the committee (in addition to Hughes, it includes reporters from Stephens Media Group, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and CQ Roll Call) would have to make a motion to reconsider. There is no timeline for when a subsequent decision might be made.
The daily press galleries have very specific criteria for determining who qualifies as "bona fide correspondents of repute in their profession," and the process begins by examining the news organization the reporter works for and how it makes money. Daily print publications and news services whose "principal business is the daily dissemination of original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public, and which has published continuously for 18 months" are eligible.
SCOTUSblog was co-founded in 2002 by Tom Goldstein and his wife Amy Howe, both practicing lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court. Unlike other credentialed news organizations, the blog doesn't make its money through subscriptions or advertising. It is provided as a public service, sponsored by Bloomberg Law.
Some critics have questioned whether the guidelines for applying the credentialing rules of the press galleries, last updated in 2011, are outdated. The most recent change was made to account for nonprofits. Publications funded by foundations must prove they are editorially independent from the group writing their paychecks, and that they do not engage in lobbying or issue advocacy.
Senate Daily Press Gallery Director Laura Lytle said she has spoken to Goldstein on multiple occasions about the reasons that SCOTUSblog is not in compliance with those rules. She shared the gallery guidelines, but she declined to comment publicly on the particulars of the standing committee's decision.
Goldstein told CQ Roll Call that the concerns were related to whether SCOTUSblog needed on-site access, whether the blog was editorially independent of his law firm, and whether the Bloomberg Law sponsorship qualifies as advertising.
He has implied the decision may ultimately play out in court, writing on SCOTUSblog that if the appeal is denied, the blog expects to litigate the issue. On Monday, he said that SCOTUSblog was not coordinating with any other groups on litigation "because that is pretty far off."
Goldstein said in an email he is not expecting an appeal from the standing committee and believes the reporters will instead write a letter. The next stop for the case would be the Senate Rules Committee.
"I really don’t know what to expect," he said. "I do think that the Standing Committee will have heard from more voices about us. But the facts that caused them to revoke Lyle’s pass remain the same."