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From AJR,   February/March 2012  issue

Same Beat, New Venue   

Longtime Supreme Court correspondent Joan Biskupicís mission at Reuters: putting legal developments into perspective. Fri., February 10, 2012.


By Romy Zipken
Romy Zipken (rzipken@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

For the past 20 years, Joan Biskupic has been bridging the gap between the high court and the people. From Clarence Thomas's nomination to Elena Kagan's, Biskupic has spent her career covering the U.S. Supreme Court, gaining access to a part of the justice system that is often complicated, controversial and hard to penetrate.

Biskupic, 55, has reported at Congressional Quarterly, the Washington Post and USA Today. Now, she's moving to Reuters as editor-in-charge of legal affairs.

Given her expertise and sterling reputation, it's no wonder Reuters has scooped up Biskupic in its current hiring spree, in which it is adding big-name journalistic talent to the roster. While Reuters is known for its breaking financial and business news, it's working to transition into a more analytic outlet. Biskupic's mission will be to identify legal trends and put developments into a broader perspective.

Reuters isn't messing around. Its aim is to become a "must-read among global professionals," said Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler in a February 7 press release. To meet that lofty aspiration, it is pulling in journalists with backgrounds at some of the field's leading publications. Recent acquisitions include media critic Jack Shafer, previously with Slate; former New York Times reporters David Cay Johnston and David Rohde; and Steve Stecklow, who was an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal.

"At a time when news organizations are cutting their staffs and often resorting to quick-and-dirty filings, I find it heartening that Reuters is hiring senior reporters with years, decades even, of experience," says Biskupic, who will join Reuters' staff in late February.

If Biskupic's work doesn't speak for itself, Rachel Smolkin, White House editor at Politico (and a former AJR managing editor), is ready to boast on her behalf. "She was like a machine. Just amazing to watch," says Smolkin, who was Biskupic's editor at USA Today for more than three years. "She knows the court inside and out and is able to give a sense of not just the law but who the justices are as people."

Biskupic began her D.C. reporting in 1989 at Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report She covered legislative affairs on Capitol Hill, but she also began to get a "taste" for reporting on the court. During her stint, she won the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress for her coverage of Clarence Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings.

Her time at CQ was during a watershed period for the Supreme Court, Biskupic says. "Flag burning. Job discrimination. The death penalty. Nativity scenes in public places. Abortion. It was as if all the hot-button social issues were before the court, and all were decided along 5-4 lines," Biskupic says.

Enamored by the legal affairs developments of the late '80s, Biskupic enrolled in law school, and, after four years of night school, she received her J.D. from Georgetown University to add to her B.A. in journalism from Marquette University and her M.A. in English from the University of Oklahoma.

In 1992, she moved to the Washington Post as a Supreme Court correspondent, delivering her coverage through a more "political lens" for the Post audience. Since 2000 she has been a Supreme Court correspondent at USA Today, where she writes for the national paper's less politically obsessed audience.

Biskupic, a Chicago native, started at USA Today around the time of Bush v. Gore. She and more than 100 other reporters were packed into courtroom press seats to hear the arguments and wait in anticipation of the court's decision.

"The press room was so crowded with reporters, some of them from international publications and speaking foreign languages, that if I wanted to talk to one of my regular press colleagues, I resorted to e-mail from my desk rather than try to work my way through the crush in the small room," Biskupic recalls. "The hard-copy opinion issued by the court that night is one of the few I've saved through the years."

Since then, Biskupic has seen the distribution of her stories change considerably. At the Post, the trend was basically one story per court ruling, which isn't the case anymore in the faster-than-ever digital era.

The hurried reporting doesn't bother her, and it isn't really that new to her either, says Biskupic, who got her start at afternoon papers. She used to work at the Milwaukee Journal, where the news needed to be ready for evening delivery, so she would have it reported and filed "before anyone was even having lunch."

Delivering information through tweeting and blogging is just another way to keep up with the current audience, Biskupic says. "I have no trouble tweeting, and I have no trouble doing blogs, in part because I can bracket my coverage at the other end with the longer pieces and my books."

And she has written quite a few books, including biographies of two Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Both received accolades in the New York Times Book Review.

She is currently working on another, this time about Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The book, however, is not a biography but rather a look at the progress of Latinos in the law through the life and appointment of Sotomayor.

Though the justices are not the most accessible bunch, says Biskupic, she has gotten her fair share of direct contact. Biskupic spoke with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about a 2009 case involving a 13-year-old girl who was strip-searched at her school on a tip that she was carrying drugs. At the time, Ginsburg was the only female justice, and she was frustrated by her colleagues' lack of understanding of the young girl's humiliation. Ginsburg said, "They have never been a 13-year-old girl."

"In the end, perhaps after being persuaded by Ginsburg behind the scenes, the majority ruled that school administrators violated the girl's rights," Biskupic says.

While she's away from the Supreme Court, Biskupic exercises regularly and belongs to a book club that changes genres each year. She lives in Northwest Washington, D.C., with her husband, Clay Lewis. Their daughter, Elizabeth, attends the University of Chicago.

But when Biskupic's on the job, no one does it quite like her. "I'd say she's the top Supreme Court writer in the country," Smolkin says.

After her 20 years with the court, Biskupic will take her varying writing experiences to Reuters, where content goes to both general audiences through its newswire and to specialty audiences through its legal and professional readership.

"It's very satisfying to be covering stories that people have competing views on," Biskupic says. "I hope I can bring to readers an understanding of the legal elements at issue and not just the political factors at play."