Not to minimize the monumental impact of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court and a likely judicial swing to the right, but every time nominees are grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee I suspect that seasoned journalists experience a twinge of empathy.
The lawmakers tasked with vetting future Supreme Court members have a legitimate interest in trying to divine how nominees will rule on impactful matters like abortion, torture, police power and money in politics. In that sense, journalists can empathize with lawmakers as well.
Gorsuch’s response to queries by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about his opinion on well-known Supreme Court cases on Tuesday morning was classic.
“I would be tipping my hand and suggesting to litigants that I’ve already made up my mind” if he were to elaborate, Gorsuch told Grassley. “That’s not a fair judge.”
Similarly, Gorsuch argued, if he telegraphed his personal views on specific cases to lawmakers who have the power to deny appointment, the independence of the judiciary would be compromised. That would be a dangerous road to go down.
As maddening as these answers are, I suspect that deep down most journalists can appreciate judicial nominees’ reticence on both fronts.
In the course of reporting any number of stories, sources often query reporters about their personal opinion on a story or what “angle” they plan to take. It’s a minefield, and good reporters typically parry. Fairness and independence are really interrelated in the journalistic and judicial sense, with perception being more salient in the case of fairness, and actuality more at emphasized in the matter of independence. Sources must believe that reporters are going to be fair in order to trust them enough to speak on the record, but if a reporter’s sources are winnowed down to only those who are in agreement with their particular sympathies, then the product is likely to be more pro bono publicity for a particular cause than journalism.
Journalism, like jurisprudence, is in many ways a synthesis of different pieces of clashing information that ideally resolve into a particular conclusion. To gather all those pieces of information and reach a sound conclusion, it’s necessary to start with at least the illusion of fairness, no matter how difficult it is to believe.