I don't envy legal reporters. If you're a sportswriter, you don't have to start every article on the latest Yankees-Red Sox game by patiently explaining the arcane rules of baseball -- it's understood that your readers know them. But if you write about the law, the context for your stories is a system with complex procedures and arcane precedents, and a significant chunk of what you write is going to have to be an explanation of how the system works. Furthermore, while most journalism revolves around people -- characters who can be cast in competing roles, often as heroes or villains -- by the time a case gets to the Supreme Court, it usually has almost nothing to do with the original plaintiff and defendant. Instead, the justices are attempting to determine what sort of general rule should apply to this sort of case, whether its application in this particular case seems fair or not.
Nevertheless, the cases that attract a lot of attention do end up being those with compelling human stories at their heart. In a terrific guide to how the Roberts court is sprinting to the right, Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick explain the various techniques Chief Justice John Roberts has used to engineer an assault on decades of jurisprudence. Here's a sample:
Because we tend to fall in love with the compelling life stories contained in the "blockbuster" cases, we often ignore these hypertechnical, jargon-laden cases that may not make headlines. Especially when, as in Iqbal, the plaintiff was a Muslim TV installer. But the under-the-radar cases matter. Iqbal, Twombley, Garrett, Gross, Rapanos, Rent-a-Center. Maybe you haven't heard of most of those. But these are the cases that, read together, are making it harder and harder for everyday litigants to walk into a courthouse and hold unscrupulous employers, manufacturers of defective products, or polluters to account.
There really is a legal revolution going on, and in all of the political frenzy of the last couple of years -- the 2008 election, the health-care battle, whatever Sarah Palin is tweeting about today -- it has, to a degree, gotten lost. But it's having some profound effects on our national life.
-- Paul Waldman
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