Covering the Supreme Court in 1904 and 2014

March 7th, 2014

This passage from “The Bully Pulpit” shows how little the coverage of the Court has changed over the last century–reporters wait with bated breath, and as soon as they can, run to file their reports.

ON MARCH 14, 1904, AS word spread that the Northern Securities merger decision was imminent, an immense crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court. For Roosevelt, the outcome loomed with enormous implications for his party, as well as the nation. If the Court sustained the administration’s argument that the colossal merger represented a monopoly that restricted trade, the victory would demonstrate a fundamental shift in the Republican Party’s relationship with the trusts. Inside the chamber, seating was filled to capacity. Dozens of senators and congressmen jockeyed for space in the section normally reserved for families of the justices. At the government bench, Attorney General Knox and Secretary Taft sat side by side, their expressions marked by “nervous expectancy.” Nearby, ranks of powerful corporate lawyers had assembled. At the back of the chamber, more than fifty newspapermen, “paper and pencil in hands,” readied to race to the telegraph wires the moment the ruling came down. “It required but little effort of imagination,” one reporter noted, “to see in the vast background millions of American citizens awaiting the outcome of this judicial battle against daring financiers.” The crowd stood as the Court crier opened the session with the traditional cry: “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

Just like today.

As Justice John Harlan began to read the Court’s 5– 4 opinion, papers reported, “everyone was alert for the significant sentence which should disclose the attitude of the majority.”

Just like today.

Phones, the internet, and the rest of the 20th Century hasn’t quite made it into One First Street.

And it was in this case that Holmes joined the dissent that President Roosevelt famously lashed out against him.

Roosevelt was stunned by Holmes’s dissent. “I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone than that,” he angrily charged. Years later, Holmes agreed that the Northern Securities case had derailed his nascent friendship with Roosevelt. “We talked freely later,” he recalled, “but it was never the same.”