Jan Crawford Greenburg Goes Behind the Scenes at the Supreme Court


On Thursday, November 1st, the Harvard Law School Federalist Society hosted Jan Crawford Greenburg of ABC News before a standing room crowd of over 120, eager to see a law school graduate turned Supreme Court reporter speak. Greenburg framed her remarks in terms of the transition from the Rehnquist Supreme Court to the Roberts court, providing the type of current events information that law school Supreme Court junkies crave.

She started her analysis of the court by noting the group dynamics of the body, which she described as “nine very independent peers” who “define themselves in relation to each other.”

To illustrate the importance of these group dynamics, she first focused on a justice recently in the news, Clarence Thomas, and addressed the common perception that Justice Thomas from his first days on the court has merely followed Justice Antonin Scalia ’60. She described how an analysis of the detailed papers and notes of former Justice Harry Blackmun ’32 show a Justice Thomas who in his very first week “was standing alone in dissent” and changing the votes of Justices Scalia, Rehnquist, and Anthony Kennedy ’61. Greenburg described how the notes show a Justice Thomas frequently standing forcefully and with great eloquence in dissent in his first term, while often changing the initial position of Justice Scalia. This strong voice on the right of the court in his very first term immediately altered the group dynamic. Greenburg particularly focused on the effect Justice Thomas had on Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Greenburg described Justice O’Connor before Justice Thomas’ arrival as being pushed away from the left of the court by Justice William Brennan ’31, who “rubbed her the wrong way.” With the departure of Brennan and the arrival of Thomas, Greenburg described Justice O’Connor shifting away from the right and Justice Thomas, some of whose views “she was almost bristling at.” This movement by Justice O’Connor led to the court “completely counter-intuitively mov[ing] to the left” in Thomas’ first term, due mainly to a shift in the dynamics of the Justices interpersonal relationships rather than any shift in legal ideology.

In commenting on the effect of President George W. Bush on the court, Greenburg returned to the framework of group dynamics and focused on the transition from the Rehnquist Court to the Roberts Court. She noted that the current court has shifted such that Justice Kennedy is in the position of being the swing vote, and also went on to address the divisiveness of the Roberts Court’s first term. She put this discussion into the context of the interaction between the new Chief Justice and the more liberal justices, with specific focus on public remarks by Chief Justice John Roberts ’79 about having a less divided court.

Greenburg noted that in her view, Chief Justice Roberts “overplayed his hand.” He was so adamant about the concept of having a less divided and more amicable court that he managed to convince Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that he was going to be somehow less conservative than his record suggested. This meant that once the Chief was on the court, and acting as conservatively as most pundits had predicted, some of the liberal justices felt “had,” or as if the Chief had lied to them. She then predicted, “I don’t think you’ll see the same hostility this term because everyone knows where people are” ideologically on the court.

In the end, the aspect of Greenburg’s talk was the portion that impressed the audience the most as it took the discussion beyond an academic exercise into the realm of real people and real emotions. Jan Crawford Greenburg is not only a correspondent for ABC News, but also the author of a new book on the Supreme Court entitled Supreme Conflict.

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