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Feb 9, 2015

New SCOTUS Press Pass Policy: More of the Same

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its first formal guidelines for issuance of press passes, after its unwritten policies were questioned because of its refusal to issue a credential to SCOTUSBlog. But the new rules are not likely not help the website.

The problem arose because SCOTUSBlog was initially sponsored by a law firm that argued cases before the Court, as a means of promoting that practice. But the blog is now editorially independent, although the founders and other practicing attorneys often write for the blog, as do law professors and students, and some non-attorney journalists, notably renowned veteran Supreme Court reporter Lyle Dennison.

Prior to adoption of the new guidelines, the Court issued its credentials -- which allow the holder to a sit in the section of the courtroom reserved for the press and to use the court's press room -- on the basis of whether an applicant had a press credential from the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery. That group, which consists of mainstream press organizations that cover the Senate, denied SCOTUSblog a credential last June, after granting Dennison one the previous year.

Under the prior, unwritten policy, the lack of a Senate press credential meant that SCOTUSblog could not obtain a press credential from the Supreme Court. Instead, it relied on "day passes" based on Dennison's affiliations with more traditional media outlets.

The controversy over credentials for SCOTUSblog led the Court to announce that it would create its own credentialing standards that were not dependent on a determination by the Senate Press Gallery.

But the new policy is not likely to help SCTOUSblog, since they explicitly limit yearly, "hard" pass holders to "full-time journalist[s]" who "operate[s] or [are] employed by a media organization." In addition, applicants for the passes must demonstrate that "[t]he applicant does not practice law before the Court and is independent of individuals and entities that practice law before the Court."

Day passes are limited to "a journalist affiliated with a media organization or, as space allows, a writer who is not affiliated with a media organization."

Under these rules, it appears that SCTOUSblog will be eligible only for day passes, and only on a space available basis. This is despite its role as a premier source of Supreme Court news, which has won a Peabody Award in 2013 and a Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi) award for deadline reporting the same year for its coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Nat'l Fed. of Ind. Business v. Sebelius, 132 S.Ct. 2566 (2012), which upheld the Affordable Care Act.

[UPDATE: According to the Associated Press, Dennison has begun his own, independent blog, which should qualify him for his own Supreme Court press credential, even as he continues to write for SCOTUSblog.]

The Court's concern that lawyers not use press credentials to gain unfair access to the Court is legitimate. But it should not be used as an excuse to limit access to a website that is widely recognized as the authoritative site for objective coverage of U.S. Supreme Court cases and related issues. In the modern media world, that should be enough for the Court to issue press credentials to SCOTUSblog.

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