Rush to Judgment, or How to Read a Judicial Opinion

On June 28, the United States Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, or Freedom-Loving Right-Thinking Americans vs. Crazy Liberal Obama Care or Right-Wing Nut Jobs Who Are Determined to Drag Us All Back to the Dark Ages vs. The Wonderfully-Sensible Affordable Health Care Act — take your pick.

It was the biggest decision by the Supremes since Dubya v. Al, the 2000 decision that delivered the White House to George Dubya Bush by a landslide of one vote (specifically Justice Scalia’s).

Within seconds after the Supreme Court issued its Obama Care opinion, America’s finest journalists took to the airwaves.

Fox News (“Fair and Balanced”) was first to share the breaking news with the American people. News Anchor Bill Hemmer, hardly containing his excitement, announced, “We have breaking news here on the Fox News Channel … the individual mandate (of the act) has been ruled unconstitutional!”

Within seconds, CNN (“the most trusted name in broadcast journalism”) shared the same news with millions of its viewers. CNN correspondent Kate Boulduan announced that the nation’s highest court had struck down the key component of President Obama’s health care law, finding it unconstitutional.

“Wow, that’s a dramatic moment!” Wolf Blitzer said, and CNN then flashed on the screen, the announcement “BREAKING NEWS! SUPREME COURT KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE.”

Conservative Americans rejoiced. Sean Hannity and Glen Beck gave each other a chest bump. Rush Limbaugh spiked his microphone.

From high atop his penthouse in Trump Tower, The Donald bellowed, “Obama, you’re fired!”

And GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took a chauffeure-driven victory lap with his dog, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the limo.

At the Oval Office, President Obama (who always watches Fox News) hung his head in despair. “With my luck,” he sobbed to Joe Biden, “they will soon find out the truth that my birth certificate is a forgery.”

But wait! Stop the presses! There was just one tiny problem with the breaking news from Fox News and CNN. It may have been fair and balanced and most trusted, but it was dead wrong. The Supremes had not found “Obama Care” to be unconstitutional. In fact, in a 5-4 decision, they had upheld the law.

You read that right, Walter Cronkite breath! The decision of the nation’s highest court was exactly the opposite of what had been reported on Fox News and CNN.

This journalistic snafu brought to mind other great moments in the history of American journalism such as the headline in the Chicago Tribune in 1948 (“Dewey Defeats Truman”) or Dan Rather’s announcement on election night in 2000 that Al Gore had won Florida and was headed to the White House, not anticipating that the election would be decided not in Florida, but rather (no pun intended) by one nine-voter precinct in the District of Columbia.

How in the world did America’s fairest, most balanced, and trusted broadcast journalists get the story wrong? After all, they were given a copy of the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s not like Justice Scalia intentionally leaked them the wrong information.

Here is apparently what happened. In their rush to judgment, America’s finest journalists did not bother to read the entire decision. This is understandable. Given that the opinion was 193 pages long. Even Evelyn Woods wouldn’t have time to read 193 pages when the goal is to “scoop” the story.

In a very real sense, the crack journalists at Fox and CNN were very much like members of Congress who in 2010 passed the new health care law without bothering to read it in its entirety. Again, this is very understandable since the health care law was 2,700 pages long. It would be like reading War and Peace twice, for crying out loud.

You would think that Congress and the Supreme Court would issue CliffsNotes with all their laws and opinions.

Well, I’m not a broadcast journalist, and I don’t play one on TV. I’m a lawyer who does read judicial opinions.

I’m also as lazy as my Congressman. I have neither the time nor the interest to read a 2,700-page law or 193-page opinion. And so, during my 34 years as a lawyer, I’ve developed a sure-fire technique for reading a judicial opinion.

As a public service to the fine journalists at Fox News, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, Entertainment Tonight, The Rush Limbaugh Show, Hardball, Nancy Grace, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, I will now share with you how to quickly read a judicial opinion.

It’s real simple. Start at the back. Go to the very last line of the opinion, and you will immediately know exactly what the Court did (judges, unlike good reporters, always bury the lead.) You can then grab your microphone, stand in front of a camera, and scream the news to your viewers.

Trust me, this will work. I’ve done it for years.

Now if you’ll excuse me, let me get back to watching TV. Fox News is reporting breaking news that Mitt Romney has just announced that if he is elected president, he plans on strapping his dog, Seamus, to the top of Air Force One.

Or maybe not.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.