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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 15, 2006

Greenhouse Discusses Supreme Court Journeys In Law School Lecture

While the U.S. Supreme Court tends to change slowly through the years, the justices themselves frequently change, as well, a leading court observer said at the University of Iowa Thursday.

Linda Greenhouse, Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times since 1978, delivered the 2006 Levitt Lecture, sponsored by the UI College of Law, at the Iowa Memorial Union. She said justices frequently moderate their views during their time on the court, particularly those who are appointed as conservatives.

She cited such justices as Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and even William Rehnquist as recent appointees of Republican presidents who became much more moderate as the years passed. But she pointed out one justice in particular -- Harry Blackmun -- whose moderation was particularly noticeable.

An appointee of Richard Nixon, Blackmun was a cautious conservative in his early years on the court who supported the death penalty and voted in a case to uphold a law requiring a bankruptcy-filing fee, even though many poor people could not afford to pay the fee. But by the time he retired he'd turned into one of the court's most liberal justices, becoming an opponent of the death penalty and an ardent supporter of a woman's right to abortion.

So what happens to these justices? Greenhouse said many factors go into whether a justice will change his or views. Those who come with an agenda are typically less resistant to change, she said. And in the most dramatic cases, the justice moves to Washington, D.C. from elsewhere in the country. The ensuing culture clash as they enter the Washington "echo chamber" often leaves them disoriented and open to new views. On the other hand, justices who have lived in Washington before they're appointment tend to moderate less, such as Justice Clarence Thomas, who spent 10 years in Washington before his 1991 appointment to the court and whose philosophy has been largely unchanged in the 15 years since.

"Thomas was a veteran of the D.C. bureaucracy and he was hardened and insular from the experience," she said, unlike O'Connor, who moved from Arizona, or Blackmun, who had lived in small-town Rochester, Minn.

Justices who change also have a "transformative experience," said Greenhouse, who studied Blackmun extensively in her 2005 book "Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey." In his case, she said the experience was writing the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion rights. The decision was the most controversial of his tenure on the court and left him vilified by abortion rights opponents and lionized by abortion rights supporters.

"He was genuinely surprised by the public reaction to that decision," said Greenhouse. "He brooded over it and he felt a great deal of pain, and eventually he came to identify with the pain of others."

That change came as he voted more and more with the court's liberal wing until he had become the court's most liberal justice by the time of his 1994 retirement.

Greenhouse was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism (beat reporting) in 1998 for her coverage of the Supreme Court. In 2004, she received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Greenhouse has also covered Congress, local and state government, and politics for the New York Times. She is also an occasional panelist on the PBS public affairs program "Washington Week."

Greenhouse is a graduate of Radcliffe College, where she currently serves on the advisory committee to the Schlesinger Library on the History of American Women. She earned a Master of Studies in Law degree from Yale Law School, and has several honorary degrees.

The Richard S. Levitt Family Distinguished Lectureship was created in 1995 through a generous endowment gift from the Levitt family to the Iowa Law School Foundation. The purpose of the Levitt Lectures is to bring to the Iowa campus distinguished national and international figures in law and government to present timely lectures to students, faculty and alumni of the College of Law. Prior Levitt Lecturers include U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former U.S. Army general Wesley Clark, former Republic of Ireland President Mary Robinson, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and four Nobel Peace Prize winners: Elie Wiesel, Abba Eban, Bishop Desmond Tutu and John Hume.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.