Journalist shares behind-the scenes stories from U.S. Supreme Court

Journalist Marcia Coyle speaks about her career covering the U.S. Supreme Court during the fourth Seminars at Steamboat talk Monday.
Matt Stensland |

It may seem like the U.S. Supreme Court laid relatively low this past year, but veteran journalist Marcia Coyle thinks that will likely change following a particularly tumultuous presidential election.

Coyle, a lawyer who has covered the high court for 28 years, shared her intimate knowledge with a packed house during the fourth Seminars at Steamboat event Monday night.

Coyle makes regular appearances on PBS’ The NewsHour and is the chief Washington, D.C. correspondent for The National Law Journal.

Coyle said it was her first time to Colorado, and she was excited to get out of the nation’s capital, where these days a reporter’s morning starts out with a reaction of “He tweeted what?” referring to “tweeter-in-chief” President Donald Trump’s affinity for delivering the news via Twitter.

Coyle, author of “The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution,” talked about how the court took on low-profile cases last term due to a harsh political environment.

With the death of conservative Antonin Scalia and a divided court, Coyle said there was a concerted effort to avoid partisan split decisions.

Scalia’s death further complicated the political environment as the U.S. Senate for nearly a year refused to hold a vote on President Barack Obama’s liberal nominee Merrick Garland.

Coyle said she does not think there is an easy way to force the Senate to take up a nomination in the future.

“I really don’t think so,” Coyle said. “I think the biggest remedy is public input.”

Coyle said there were consequences for the Senate’s failure to take a vote on Garland.

Garland had to step down from his court for a year, and 4-4 split votes in the Supreme Court left disputes unresolved.

She said a married couple in a dispute with a bank had to file bankruptcy because the court could not decide an issue related to the Equal Opportunity Credit Act.

Coyle said Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has shown himself to be a very confident judge, who appears ready now to assert himself.

Gorsuch has scolded and lectured his fellow judges about what he believes is the purpose of the court.

“It’s really too early to judge him as a justice,” Coyle said. “He has many years ahead of him and many difficult issues to face.”

Coyle’s talk was interspersed with delightful stories about her career, the court and the justices.

There was the time Stephen Breyer’s cell phone went off in court.

When it happened a second time, Coyle said the chief justice had a metal detector installed behind the bench.

Chief Justice John Roberts has lunch with members of the press once each year, and there was the time she saw Scalia at a restaurant and tried to buy him an after-dinner drink.

Scalia declined the offer, but came over to Coyle’s table and said “thanks.”

Scalia said he had to go back to the court and write an opinion.

What Scalia said next illustrated how even the country’s most powerful judges have a good sense of humor.

“Now, if it were a majority opinion, I would have taken the drink. With a dissenting opinion, I need all the wits I’ve got.”

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.