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updated: 6/28/2012 11:01 AM

Health care ruling puts all eyes on SCOTUSblog

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  • Lyle Denniston, 81, has gained attention live blogging for the SCOTUSBlog website that reports the release of Supreme Court opinions. On Thursday, Denniston expects to be the first to tell a quarter-million Americans, including the most devoted court-watchers, whether the health-care law still stands.

      Lyle Denniston, 81, has gained attention live blogging for the SCOTUSBlog website that reports the release of Supreme Court opinions. On Thursday, Denniston expects to be the first to tell a quarter-million Americans, including the most devoted court-watchers, whether the health-care law still stands.
    Washington Post

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Lyle Denniston is an 81-year-old retiree with six grandchildren, two sailboats and one ambitious goal: Breaking the news of the Supreme Court's landmark decision on the health care law, possibly to the president himself.

Denniston is a reporter for SCOTUSBlog, a small website dedicated to covering the Supreme Court. He regularly live-blogs the release of Supreme Court opinions for a following of about 1,500 lawyers, maybe 3,000 on a good day.

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That all began to change last week. As the Supreme Court's decision on health care neared, traffic boomed. The website's liveblog of opinions had 70,000 readers last Thursday and 100,000 on Monday.

"Our number one ambition is to beat everybody," Denniston said. "It's a source of pride. I may need to get some sharper elbows to make sure we get it first."

On Thursday SCOTUSBlog was preparing for as many as 250,000 readers. Even the White House is depending on the website to deliver the news to the president.

"We turn on televisions and radios and computers and watch SCOTUSBlog," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a Wednesday briefing. "We all will await the decision and learn of it at the same time that you do.

The Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act could be among the its most consequential, where the justices could strike down a major, federal law for the first time since the 1930s. The decision is likely to have a major impact on both the 2012 presidential election and the American health care system.

The Supreme Court does not make breaking news of its decision easy. Public information officers hand out paper copies of each opinion in a room where electronics are not allowed. Reporters then dash back to computers or telephones to broadcast the results.

In a case as complex as the health reform law -- where four, separate legal issues are at hand -- deciphering the opinion can take time. SCOTUSBlog has four lawyers on hand dedicated just to that task, who will be checking over all liveblog posts.

"The TV people out front literally won't have it for about two minutes," SCOTUSBlog publisher and founder Tom Goldstein said. "After they hand it to Lyle, I expect, 25 seconds after that, we'll have it on the liveblog. I would be surprised if the Associated Press can beat us."

So far, SCOTUSBlog has proved up to the task: The website has become a mainstay for Washington reporters, legislators and lobbyists anxiously awaiting a verdict.

"Decision by SCOTUS tomorrow likely at 10:15," Jeffrey Toobin, a longtime Supreme Court reporter tweeted Wednesday. His advice for the verdict: "Watch @SCOTUSBlog."

SCOTUSBlog launched in 2002 and is run by Goldstein's own law firm, Goldstein & Russell. The site has traditionally been a place where lawyers and scholars could track the many Supreme Court decisions that do not make the front page. As recently as 2010, it had a $250,000 budget and three staff members.

The Supreme Court does not recognize SCOTUSBlog as a news outlet, given that it has no print edition, and Denniston's credentials are from a Boston-area radio station.

For weeks now, Goldstein has planned for the day of the health care decision. The SCOTUSBlog liveblog, normally a two-person operation, will have seven staff members who will be "in position" by 8:15 a.m., a full two hours before the decision is expected to come down.

A third-party technology vendor has warned that the site may be a likely target for hackers, given its high traffic, and will be on-hand for any such emergencies.

"For two minutes, we're producing the Olympics," Goldstein said. "We're trying to act like it."

If this is the Olympics, than Denniston is near certainly the star athlete. "Lyle is still the sun around which all of our coverage orbits," is how Goldstein put it.

Denniston has covered the Supreme Court for nearly six decades for newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe. He joined SCOTUSBlog in 2004 as a 73-year-old blogger who was older than most of the sitting justices.

"I'm probably the least technologically sophisticated blogger you'll ever meet," Denniston said. "My wife will tell you I have no patience with computers."

Still, it's Denniston who makes the SCOTUSBlog site work. Once he has a physical copy of the health care decision, he will dash down the hall to his "cubbyhole," where his editor waits on the other line. He will then read her the key elements of the decision, which she will then post on the website.

Denniston describes the health care law suit as the "most complex" he has ever seen.

"I made it a point of trying to get well-acquainted with how health care is financed," Denniston said. "That was the most challenging part of getting ready, understanding how health care gets paid for."

Denniston has retired twice from Supreme Court decisions, each time receiving a send-off party that some justices would attend. Each time, however, he has come back to his job.

"I am just having such a great time, why would I quit?" Denniston said. "I'm doing what I think is a great public service. It's also quite fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it."

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