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On Law: In the Supreme Court trenches

By
MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- War correspondents face hostile fire. Supreme Court correspondents face spreading waistlines and disappointment.

They also serve who only read and sit.

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The closest I ever came to being a war correspondent -- and it really wasn't very close -- was a brief assignment to Panama in 1988 during the height of the Noriega regime.

As soon as my photographer and I entered the country, they threw us into detention at the airport.

In a small room, a Panama Defense Force major straight out of central casting tried to instill a proper amount of fear and respect in us.

We had reason to fear. Rebellious officers had just tried an unsuccessful coup, and the regime was killing its enemies or throwing them into prison to be gang-raped by criminals.

They let us go after a tense hour or two. I was very relieved. Since the Panama economy was collapsing under a U.S. embargo, I had thousands of dollars hidden in a money belt next to my skin.

Government sanctioned graffiti was plastered all over Panama City and Balboa Boulevard, pretty much saying the same thing: "Yanqui vista, Yanqui muerta."

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The town had a distinctly Graham Greene feel. It was full to bursting with sweaty journalists, spies and rumors. The fact that we were representing a semi-military publication, and that we were extending our visit, caused word to spread that a U.S. invasion was imminent.

It wasn't, of course. It would be more than a year before the 5th Mech and other U.S. units chastised the PDF with fire and death, teaching the Panamanians that 20th century warfare was more than a game.

In 1988, we hadn't progressed much beyond being rude to each other.

One moonless night we had to get film to the DHL office at the old airport. Unfortunately, the route took us through part of an elite PDF unit.

It was pitch dark when we hit the roadblock. One young soldier carrying an M-16 came up to the car in which I was a passenger and trained the rifle's sights on my nose.

I moved to the left, the barrel followed me. I moved to the right, it followed me back again. And then ... he shot me.

Well, no, not really, though that ending makes for a better story. Actually, nothing happened. After some explanations, we got through without incident, gave DHL the film and our editors back in Washington loved the pictures.

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But for a few seconds there I experienced a frisson of excitement that must keep war correspondents coming back for more.

Covering the Supreme Court to me is just as interesting, but admittedly not everyone's cup of tea.

When not actually in the courtroom, much of your time is taken up with looking at petition briefs and trying to guess the cases in which the court will grant review. The Supreme Court receives about 7,000 cases each year, most of them unpaid "pauper" petitions, and accepts around 75.

During many weeks of the term, the justices go into conference behind closed doors and select the cases, then announce them in an orders list. When the orders list comes out, if you've guessed right, you've backgrounded the case already -- entered the facts of the case and its impact onto a computer file -- and can get a story on the wire within seconds.

If you haven't backgrounded the story, or at least taken time to understand it, you can get in trouble. Remember how the television networks stumbled trying to find the meaning of the decision in Bush vs. Gore back in December 2000?

The guessing game is the most intellectual of exercises, but not always the most rewarding.

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While the court is out of session, the petitions continue to pour in. During this summer recess for example, lawyers filed more than 2,000 cases at the high court.

At the end of the recess, the justices hold what's called the "long conference" to decide which of the summer cases they will hear in argument. It's the last gasp of the old term, with the new term starting next week on the First Monday in October.

This summer's long conference ended last Monday, and Tuesday we received an orders list. I was hoping they would accept my favorite cases: former independent counsel Kenneth Starr arguing that tattoos are protected by the First Amendment and shouldn't be banned in South Carolina; and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe arguing that a Wisconsin father of nine children by four mothers, $25,000 behind in child support, shouldn't have been ordered to stop fathering children as part of his probation.

Neither made it to the list. In fact, none of the cases I backgrounded for weeks across the summer made it to the list. Having labored to produce an elephant, the Supreme Court delivered a mouse -- accepting four cases out of 2,000, four cases that seemed to deliberately concentrate on the most technical of legal points, making them almost useless from a news point of view.

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When you cover the Supreme Court, you learn to swallow your disappointment with your morning coffee.

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Michael Kirkland is UPI's senior legal correspondent and has covered the Supreme Court and the legal community for almost 10 years.

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