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SCOTUSblog denied Senate press credentials because of ties to law firm

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The U.S. Senate Press Gallery denied the popular Supreme Court website SCOTUSblog Senate press credentials today, finding that the site…

The U.S. Senate Press Gallery denied the popular Supreme Court website SCOTUSblog Senate press credentials today, finding that the site does not exercise enough editorial independence from the publisher's law firm.

The Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents, consisting of five journalists credentialed to cover the Senate, posted a letter to SCOTUSblog’s publisher Tom Goldstein one month after its May 23 meeting discussing the site’s relation to Goldstein's firm, Goldstein & Russell LLP.

The committee found SCOTUSblog failed to establish sufficient independence from Goldstein & Russell, a law firm that represents clients in about 10 percent of cases that come before the Court, Goldstein wrote. The only way the news site could have such an arrangement with another organization is if the other entity is “principally a general news organization,” which Goldstein's law practice is not.

Because Goldstein advocates before the Court, which the Committee defines as a form of lobbying the federal government, he cannot provide independent editorial direction as publisher for the site.

The committee also cited a comment last year from Goldstein to the American Bar Association saying that SCOTUSblog indirectly contributed to the number of Goldstein & Russell’s cases in the Supreme Court, therefore serving as a client-generating vehicle for the firm and Goldstein’s personal brand.

Laura Lytle, director of the U.S. Senate Press Gallery, said in a statement that the gallery “would be happy to reconsider the application” of SCOTUSblog if it showed a willingness to take steps toward separating itself from Goldstein & Russell.

“The law firm and the blog need to be separate: they cannot share staff, phone lines, office space and above all the editor cannot also advocate on behalf of the law firm and its clients,” Lytle said in an email.

In order for the committee to reconsider SCOTUSblog for press credentials, the site would have to increase firewalls between itself and the firm.

SCOTUSblog describes those firewalls on its website. When Goldstein & Russell is involved with a Court case, the site finds independent writers to cover the cases. However, the committee said in its letter that it was concerned that several staff members, including Goldstein and the deputy manager of the site, split their time between the site and the firm.

The committee wrote that the shared staff, office space and resources between the site and the law firm makes it “hard to determine where one ends and the other begins.”

In April, the committee rejected the application of SCOTUSblog editor and reporter Amy Howe and said it would not renew SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston’s credentials after questioning whether the site fits the gallery’s guidelines for editorial and financial independence.

Goldstein explained on the site that SCOTUSblog will have access to high court proceedings because the Court granted all of Howe’s requests for public seats in cases she plans to cover and gave Denniston access in recognition of his work for WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston.

However, the site intended to use Senate press credentials to also cover the Court nomination process and Court budget hearings, Goldstein wrote.

Among the steps required to obtain press passes, reporters must establish that they are “full-time, paid correspondents” requiring access to the Senate for recognized publications that are editorially independent of any group that might lobby the federal government.

SCOTUSblog appealed the decision in a 90-minute hearing on May 23rd, where the Standing Committee had the opportunity to ask questions about the operating practices of the site.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to the director of the Senate Press Gallery on May 22 to express support for SCOTUSblog’s press credentials.

Goldstein responded on SCOTUSblog acknowledging the importance of the traditional media model, but stating that he believes the Standing Committee is not allowing nontraditional news publications such as SCOTUSblog a chance at Senate press credentials.

Goldstein compared his editorial direction of the site to other professionals reporting in their respective fields, explaining that many people enaged in journalism do not have the traditional reporting background that typical reporters have.

“The rest of us [SCOTUSblog contributors] have acquired our knowledge through many years litigating in front of the Justices,” Goldstein wrote on the site. “That expertise lets us cover the Court well, and it gives our coverage added credibility. The same will be true across the infinite number of fields to which its rationale applies.”

Goldstein said in an email that the site will not reapply for press credentials because he will not separate himself from his firm.

The site plans to appeal the committee’s decision to the Senate Rules Committee, Goldstein wrote on the blog.

“We aren't asking Congress to pass a law or an agency to change its policies,” Goldstein said in an email. “But in the end it doesn't matter because the Committee's decision doesn't depend on that: it's enough that the blog is associated with a non-journalistic entity.”