Supreme Court Reporter Linda Greenhouse Retires

Greenhouse took over the high court beat for The New York Times in 1978. Her 30-year tenure has been longer than any sitting justice except John Paul Stevens. Nearly 3,000 articles and a Pulitzer prize later, she's leaving the Times.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

When you talk about the U.S. Supreme Court heavyweights, Linda Greenhouse has to be included on that list because she has been there for 30 years, not on the court, but in the gallery. When she took over the beat for the New York Times in 1978, Warren Burger was chief justice, and the court had yet to have its first woman.

Her tenure as a reporter on the court has actually been longer than any sitting justice, except John Paul Stevens. This summer, nearly 3,000 articles and a Pulitzer prize later, she is leaving the New York Times. Linda Greenhouse joins us in the studio. Thank you for coming in.

Ms. LINDA GREENHOUSE (Supreme Court Reporter, New York Times): Thanks for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: In a 1992 speech to the Federalist Society, Lawrence Silverman, who is an appeals court judge, referred to the greenhouse effect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: By which he partly meant you, and he partly meant activist heat, he said, that the Times legal reporters put on recently appointed justices to try to influence their opinions. It certainly did kind of single you out as being an influential player in the world of the court.

Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, Judge Silverman is giving credit for coming up with that snarky phrase, but actually, he swiped it off from Tom Assello (ph), the economist, who had put it in a column shortly before. What that was, was a dump on Anthony Kennedy, who sits in the seat that was intended in 1987 for Robert Bork. And the board nomination failed, and Justice Kennedy ended up sitting there. And it's made a substantial difference that Justice Kennedy has been there instead of Robert Bork.

WERTHEIMER: But now, at this moment, we're looking at a court which is sort of widely considered to be on the cusp of becoming a very conservative court or sort of a moderate-to-conservative court with liberal moments. Is the court just right out at a tipping point, do you think, looking back on your experience of courts we have seen?

Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, I'm hesitating only because, if I had a nickel for every time I had written that the court was at a tipping point, I could've retired earlier. So, I mean, yes, we now have a conservative court.

But this last term really confounded a lot of people, including me, because we had the Guantanamo decision, the court's third consecutive pushback against the Bush administration's policies toward the detainees. We had the rather controversial death penalty for child rape case at the end of the term, where the court said the death penalty in those circumstances was unconstitutional. We had a series statutory cases involving discrimination in the workplace, in which the employees either completely won or significantly won all those cases. There were about five of them. So the term ended with, I'd say, a lot of people scratching their heads.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you see the court as leading on issues or moving with society on issues like abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, presidential power.

Ms. GREENHOUSE: In most of the major cases, even those that have become very controversial, like Roe against Wade, what people forget, I think, is that Roe against Wade was a seven to two decision from a really quite conservative court. And the court, I think, reflected very much what had come to be the prevailing view of the elites, that the regime of criminal abortion laws in the country had come to be a major public health crisis.

That's just one example where the court was reflecting rather than trying to change social norms. What none of us can predict are what are the issues that are going to be salient 10 or 20 years down the road that might call on something quite different in the personal makeup of that individual, and then you really don't know.

WERTHEIMER: And if you were to describe something like that, what would it be?

Ms. GREENHOUSE: Well, for instance, I think privacy going forward is going to be a big issue in all of these various aspects, and privacy summons up a kind of libertarian response in a number of people who have a basically conservative outlook on the world. Any of the issues that cut across conventional liberal/conservative lines and call on the libertarian instincts of some justices are kind of wild cards.

WERTHEIMER: Linda Greenhouse is retiring from the New York Times this summer after many years of covering the Supreme Court. The paper will publish a retrospective of her work in Sunday's editions, and she will begin teaching at Yale law school next spring. Thanks very much.

Ms. GREENHOUSE: Thank you.

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