Whether you’re just starting out as a science journalist or you have years of experience, stories can often turn out to be brand-new reporting experiences. Writing about dam removal? Better learn how the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing process works. Interviewing someone about a life-changing nightmare like a miscarriage? Time to learn about trauma-informed reporting.
When an editor reached out to me about reporting a story on a series of 2021 and 2022 lawsuits brought by the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe against Seattle’s public utility company over hydroelectric dams that allegedly affect salmon populations, it was time to go to DIY law school. With no prior legal experience under my belt (besides dozing off while watching 12 Angry Men), I had to bring myself up to speed quickly on the differences among federal, state, and tribal courts, how to find court documents, and a new ecosystem of legal vocabulary. It felt like doing my graduate thesis research all over again, but this time without anyone’s guidance.
But “as journalists, that’s sort of like what we do. We don’t have to know everything, we just have to know how to find it out,” says Kristin Hussey, a veteran freelance reporter with The New York Times who recently started reporting on court cases in-depth while covering the efforts of families affected by the Sandy Hook massacre to hold gun manufacturers accountable.
And that work is worthwhile. “Court reporting can be a powerful way to get information,” says Katie Surma, a lawyer* and international-environmental-law reporter with Inside Climate News. “Parties have power [through discovery to obtain]** information from each other, which allows us as journalists to have a window into the way companies [and] organizations function that we wouldn’t otherwise get.” Court cases are where things can get really interesting, says investigative journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt. “There’s so much juicy stuff that never really makes it out to the public unless journalists find it and bring it out.”
To get the story right, journalists reporting on court cases need to figure out which legal systems are at play, how to find and decipher court documents, and how to make sure they don’t miss key details or biases hiding beneath the surface.
Navigating Legal Systems
When covering a legal story, the first thing to figure out is what court systems are involved. If the story is centered within the U.S., there are:
- Federal courts: These are divided into district courts in each state, followed by regional appeals courts, and the Supreme Court at the top. Cases generally get filed in district court first if a plaintiff alleges that a federal law has been broken or if people in different states have a high-dollar conflict. If there’s enough legal oomph (and money), they can make it all the way to the Supreme Court, such as in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc, where a company fought to patent the BRCA cancer gene.
- State courts: These are also generally divided into a three-tiered system with a state-specific supreme court at the top. State courts can address conflicts regarding state law, of course, but they can also hear cases about federal laws, too. In state court case Havasupai Tribe v. Arizona Board of Regents, for example, the tribe sued based on a lack of informed consent about how their DNA was being used in research studies. (Sometimes, a case could be filed in either state or federal court; for example, if the parties live in two different states. In those cases, the plaintiff gets to decide where to file.)
- Tribal courts: These are operated individually by federally recognized Indigenous sovereign nations and pertain to tribal matters. For example, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe filed a suit on behalf of wild rice in tribal court (Manoomin v. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) alleging that the state’s approval of a pipeline permit violated treaty rights to protect wild rice. For these stories covering tribal court cases, Surma recommends speaking with experts in Indian law because the interplay of tribes, treaties, states, and the federal government is complex.
There are also international courts, which vary tremendously and deal with problems that arise between countries, such as trade law or war crimes. And every country, of course, has its own system. That can make things a little intimidating, but key information is often findable. If you get an assignment to cover a case in Ecuador, for example, you first need to determine whether the case is filed in international court or in that country’s national or subnational courts, Surma says. This information is likely listed on the complaint, or the initial document filed in a case. “You want to get the lay of the land of what type of government is in this country, and what is their judicial system like.” To do that, Surma recommends searching through resources like the CIA’s World Factbook and GlobaLex, published by the NYU School of Law.
Keep in mind, too, that cases often move among the different levels within a court system, so it’s important to establish where a case currently stands. “Often it’s not clear from [journalistic articles] what stage something is at,” says Kathiann M. Kowalski, a freelance journalist and former lawyer. She points to Juliana v. United States, the case where a group of children are suing the U.S. government for its role in advancing climate change. “[T]hat was sort of like this ping pong ball bouncing from one court to an appeals court, back down, back up, up to the Supreme [Court], back down.” (The plaintiffs are currently waiting to see whether they can file an amended complaint after an appeals court concluded that they can’t make a ruling in this case.)
Learning about court systems doesn’t have to be mind-numbing. Consider picking up popular books about specific cases to familiarize yourself with the legal system, says Kowalski. “Not just because it’s a fun read, but because you get a sense of, ‘What’s the procedure involved?’” In particular, she recommends Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, about the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey trial.” This case may have occurred a long time ago, but many of the basics about the legal system remain the same. For a more modern approach, listen to Westervelt’s podcast Drilled, which follows efforts of the fossil fuel industry to avoid legal and social accountability for climate damage, as well as Damages, which explains many legal concepts, such as international tribunals and amicus briefs, through the lens of climate disputes.
Finding and Understanding Legal Documents
Reporting on a court case requires you to spend a lot of time digging through court documents. But reading legal materials might remind you of the first time you tried to read a peer-reviewed science article. Finding it in the first place can be difficult, the format is weird, it’s not clear how what you’re looking at fits into the big picture, and there’s all sorts of funky jargon.
To start, know that at least in the U.S., you have a right to access a case’s documents, as a journalist and as a member of the public, says Mary Anne Pazanowski, a veteran journalist with Bloomberg Law. “Once it’s been filed in court, it’s a public document. The public has the right to access it.” That said, sometimes the documents are sealed, if they contain highly sensitive information.
At the federal level, finding court documents is relatively straightforward. Journalists can search for cases in the PACER portal, an online clearinghouse for federal court records. But be warned: Accessing these “public documents” often comes at a cost via page charges (10 cents per page for PACER records, for example). “There was one case file that we ended up paying like $600 for. And again, it’s supposed to be a publicly available document,” Westervelt says. She recommends that freelancers ask their editors to reimburse them for page charges. Page charges are also waived for balances under $30 per quarter, or if you view the records at a federal courthouse.
Other court systems, like those at the state and tribal level, vary in how easily you can access documents. Some court systems use online portals, while others don’t. Often, you may have more luck in reaching out to the court clerk or even the attorneys involved in the case. “You can call them up and say, ‘Hey, can I get a copy of this complaint?’ And they usually send it to you,” Pazanowski says.
Common court documents include:
- Docket: A register of all the information available and documents filed for a particular case within a court’s filing system. This is typically your first stop in looking up court documents.
- Complaint: The first document that a plaintiff files to kick off the court process. It lays out who they’re suing, the facts of the case, and what sort of remedy they’re looking for.
- Motion: A document that someone involved in the lawsuit files to ask the judge to do something, like dismiss a case, force the other side to hand over information, or issue a ruling before the case goes to trial.
- Opinion: A document filed by the judge explaining their ruling on an issue, and the reasoning behind it. In appeals courts where there is more than one judge, you might see majority opinions and dissenting opinions written by judges who disagree with the ruling.
- Subpoena: A court order requiring someone to hand over information to one of the sides in the lawsuit when they’re getting ready to head to trial.
- Amicus curiae brief: Also known as a “friend of the court brief” or “amicus brief,” it’s a document filed by a party that’s not personally involved in the lawsuit to sway the judge one way or another.
Whenever possible, it’s best practice to post court documents relevant to your coverage online and link to them in your stories, so that readers can access the material for themselves.
If a case has gone to trial, you may be able to find transcripts or recordings of court proceedings listed in the online court portal. In these pages, you might find colorful nuggets from what people say during the trial, rather than the dry legalese in the filing documents.
This can help you paint the scenes of a story better, as Westervelt and her colleagues did in the podcast This Land. In season 2 of the show, one of the hosts, Rebecca Nagle, takes listeners directly into the courtroom as she covers Brackeen v. Haaland, a case in which law firms that typically work for the oil, gas, and casino industries are representing white families trying to adopt Native American children, which would require overturning a federal law. The show includes scenes of court proceedings re-created from transcripts of the trial.
Live from the Courthouse
To maximize the color and detail you can add to your coverage, attend trials in person when it’s possible. You can see who sits where, how people on the opposing sides react to each other when cooped up in the same room, and even find people to interview, all conveniently assembled in one place. Most court proceedings are open to the public, unless they involve classified information or a party has filed a motion asking a judge to close the proceeding. (If the latter has occurred, a media organization has the option to file an opposing motion.)
For This Land, Nagle attended some proceedings in person. At one point, she interviewed Fawn Sharp, the vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation and the president of the National Congress of American Indians, right after a trial hearing where she got into trouble with court officials for wearing a traditional Quinault cedar hat. Covering that smaller event helped the journalists set up and reflect the larger conflict between Indigenous people and the federal judicial system in the case.
When you’re reporting in person, keep in mind that each court differs slightly in its operations. A good place to start is the court’s website to learn when and where the trial will be held and whether it’s open to the public. You’ll also want to look for any media resources or policies. Each court has specific rules, such as no audio recording allowed or no interviews within the courthouse itself, and the consequences of violating these can be severe. To be on the safe side, touch base with the court clerk, the person who’s responsible for wrangling everyone (including the media) together. You can go over your reporting plan with them to make sure you are following the court’s policies.
Critically Evaluate What You Find Out
As a science writer, you know to evaluate new studies with skepticism even though they have an aura of officiality. The same applies when it comes to reading court documents and trial transcripts. While reporting season 2 of This Land, for example, Westervelt and her team had to deal with misleading and missing information, such as important custody documents that lawyers had fought to keep out of the official records.
To avoid missing key information, Westervelt recommends using court filings as a jumping-off point for further research. You can find a treasure trove of sources and intel in the appendices and footnotes, for example. In my reporting on the Sauk-Suiattle story, I found government studies buried in the footnotes that showed how salmon regularly migrated upstream past the locations of the contested dams before they were built—contrary to the claims of Seattle’s public utilities provider.
Verify everything you can, Surma says, and make it clear in your story what kind of information you’re reporting on and where it’s coming from. Did the judge state something in the ruling? Or was it a claim the plaintiffs allege in their complaint? Remember to differentiate between facts and allegations. “Until there is a final decision, allegations are just that, allegations,” Surma wrote in an email.
Information you uncover may ultimately affect your decision whether to cover a case at all. If you discover that a lawsuit you’re covering has been brought by a group whose stance goes against scientific consensus, for example, it may be a good idea to pass on the story. “Carefully consider if this is something you should report on,” Pazanowski wrote in an email. “The more publicity [these groups] get, the more people may believe they have legitimate gripes. Think hard before you give them a bullhorn.” Journalists can root out potentially problematic plaintiffs by researching them early in the reporting process and getting a feel for the types of clients their attorneys normally represent.
Assembling the Story
The sourcing needs of a basic court-case story are similar to other sorts of reporting: reach out to both sides—either the lawyers or the parties themselves, whether that’s an individual or the public relations department for an organization—and at least one independent expert. But sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Attorneys representing someone who stands to lose a lot of money tend to be tight-lipped since they don’t want to inadvertently jeopardize their client by sharing information with a journalist, for example.
It can sometimes be easier to find an independent expert to comment on the story because they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the case. Law school professors whose area of expertise overlaps with the topic of the court case can be particularly fruitful. You can keep an eye out for relevant experts included in webinars related to your topic, for example. Surma also recommends finding lawyers who aren’t involved in the case but have argued similar cases before the judge assigned to the trial. These sources can provide some insight into what the judge might be thinking or how that specific court system operates.
Another avenue for finding independent experts is via organizations, nonprofits, and trade groups that work in areas related to the court case, even ones who might have filed an amicus brief in the trial. “If it’s a public interest nonprofit or law firm, their whole thing is trying to change or shape laws on behalf of a particular constituency. So they are very interested in talking to media,” Westervelt says.
The key is to be aware of a particular person or group’s viewpoint and how it might influence what they tell you. It doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t use them as a source, but just make sure to plug that information in with the rest of the story. Pazanowski recommends clueing your readers in to a source’s potential bias by including tip-off phrases or lines explaining their affiliations or stances on an issue. For example, in the Sauk-Suiattle story that I reported, I mentioned that a green-hydropower-certification company chose to overlook the negative recommendation of an independent scientific reviewer in favor of approving the dams for certification (and taking the dam builder’s money, of course).
When it comes to writing the story, it helps to keep your specific audience in mind—what their needs are for understanding the story and what their main takeaway should be. Kowalski says she tailors her language and the details she includes to her audience’s background. When reporting on climate change case Juliana v. United States for Science News Explores (formerly Science News for Students), she says she used the plainest language possible so that 12- to 14-year-olds could understand what she was writing. But when covering the litigation surrounding Ohio’s corrupt House Bill 6, which bailed out two nuclear plants, for Energy News Network, she knew she could get more into the weeds of the case. “A lot of the readers have been following everything and know this is this big saga,” she says.
As you wade through a case’s details and interview a variety of sources, it helps to remember a common journalism motto: Don’t be afraid to ask questions until you’re confident that you understand everything. This is especially important for legal reporting, where even minute details matter and each case is layered with nuance. Taking extra steps to ensure you have the complete picture of a case will ultimately translate to your readers being better informed, too. “[E]specially in the U.S., there’s this real fear of being wrong or being dumb,” Westervelt says. But that should never stop you from asking a lawyer to explain something. “[N]obody loves to tell people how things work more than lawyers do.”
*Correction 8/24/22: An earlier version of this story stated that Katie Surma is a former lawyer. In fact, she is still a lawyer.
**Correction 8/24/22: In an earlier version of this story, Katie Surma is quoted saying that, “Parties have power to subpoena information from each other…” While this is accurate, Surma meant to discuss the discovery process at large, of which subpoena is just one part.
Lindsay VanSomeren is a freelance writer living in Suquamish, Washington. Her work has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Discover, Crosscut, and more. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Northwest Science Writers Association, and the Native American Journalists Association. Follow her on Twitter at @jiigibiig.