Linda Greenhouse pulled a thick white packet out of her black leather bag. It was a recent Supreme Court decision, and for nearly thirty years, she had made cases like this one matter to millions of readers.
“I am bemused to find myself back where I started,” Greenhouse said, flipping through the decision, evidence that her fascination with law has outlasted her tenure as the Supreme Court beat reporter for the New York Times.
Greenhouse, the Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence and Joseph M. Goldstein Senior Fellow at the Yale Law School, had arrived in New Haven just days before our interview. After four decades working at the Times and nearly three decades covering the Supreme Court, after starting a family and winning a Pulitzer Prize, Greenhouse has returned to her roots. From her office at the law school, where she earned her Master of Studies in Law degree in 1978, she flashed a wide smile as she recalled and recited a famous quotation by T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Greenhouse was born in Hamden, Connecticut in 1947. She attended Hamden High School and spent much of her time at Yale, the alma mater of her father, who worked at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. A summer internship at the hospital convinced Greenhouse to pursue medicine at Radcliffe, but her interests soon shifted as she decided to major in American Government and write for the Harvard Crimson.
“At that time the Crimson was a very macho Harvard institution,” Greenhouse explained. She was the only female freshman elected to the Crimson after what she called a “grueling process” of training and testing. She recalls crying while she waited for a taxi back to the Radcliffe dorms, but despite the challenges of being a female reporter, she eventually became a Crimson editor.
During college, Greenhouse also worked as a stringer for the Boston Herald, primarily reporting on Harvard student reactions to the Vietnam War and the draft. When she graduated, though, she could not get a job at the newspaper. “I naively assumed with this experience or exposure they might hire me,” she said. “But I was a woman.”
When interviewing for a summer internship with the Washington Post, Greenhouse was asked whether she would prefer to cover Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, or a small town in rural Virginia. Greenhouse answered that she would most enjoy covering the Supreme Court. “It sounded kind of distinctive and intellectual,” she said. “They said, ‘Wrong. If you really wanted to be a journalist, you would say a small town in rural Virginia.’”
Instead, Greenhouse was selected for a New York Times fellowship that allowed her to work with famed columnist James Reston, who was based in Washington, D.C. at the time. “I got it I think because the Vietnam draft was on. A few of the guys he had hired got drafted. I think that opened his mind to maybe hire a woman,” Greenhouse explained.
Reston later became Executive Editor of the Times, and Greenhouse followed him from D.C. to New York, where she stayed on as a staff reporter, first covering the New York Legislature and eventually becoming the Albany bureau chief. After nine years in New York, Greenhouse wanted to return to D.C. to report on Congress, but the Times was seeking a new Supreme Court reporter and decided she was the one for the job.
The paper then sent Greenhouse to Yale Law School in 1978 for a program designed by the Ford Foundation to equip journalists with a background in law that would lead to improved coverage of the courts. New York Times correspondent Neil Lewis, who completed the MSL program the year after Greenhouse did, said his former colleague had unparalleled devotion to her subject. “The Supreme Court beat is relatively monastic compared to others in Washington,” he explained. “Linda spent many days simply devoting herself to reading briefs so she could be and was the best prepared reporter in the court.”
But while most of her day was dedicated to the law, Greenhouse said she tried to leave the stress of her beat at the door when she returned home to her husband, her daughter, and her iguana.
Her daughter, Hannah Fidell, 23, said she greatly admires the dedication her mother had to her craft. Dinner was always rich with discussion of legal issues and politics, and Greenhouse would often leave the newspaper on the breakfast table open to her articles.
Fidell could not contain her amusement when I asked what other interests her mother has. She said her mother loves reptiles and even subscribes to a number of reptile magazines. She recommended that I read a New York Times piece by Greenhouse, and once I found the article I had trouble believing that the eminent Supreme Court reporter had written it. “The Long Tale of Madonna the Iguana” articulates the pain of love and letting go by describing the house pet that grew too big to keep. Greenhouse wrote, “A pet outgrew a girl. A girl outgrew her pet. And a mother tried, probably for longer than she should have, to hold on to both.”
Fidell said she is now taking care of the new family reptile, a Russian tortoise, for the next two and a half years while Greenhouse commutes between New Haven and Bethesda. “She wants it to have a stable home,” Fidell laughed.
Greenhouse added that horseracing is another one of her interests. Had she not been hired by the Times, Greenhouse would likely have become a racing journalist. Fidell explained that her mother knows horse racing statistics and her reptiles almost as intimately as she knows her court cases.
Much of Greenhouse’s success, though, lies in the fact that she broke down those highly complex cases and identified the most important issues in an articulate and compelling way. Experience in political coverage allowed her to draw important connections between law and politics, between court decisions and their practical implications. She had a smart and swift approach to the articles she wrote from her cubicle in the marble and pillared Supreme Court building, and she never underestimated the intelligence of her audience.
Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, explained that Greenhouse “has the ability to put legal questions into the context of their own history and doctrine coupled with a perspective on their contemporary import and future impact.” Jill Abramson, Managing Editor of the New York Times, added that Greenhouse “knew the galaxy of sources in the legal field so well that she would only turn to the very best people in the field. Whether they were liberals, conservatives, moderates, she knew who the smartest legal thinkers were about any subject and had a wonderful depth of knowledge.”
Greenhouse covered 29 sessions of the Supreme Court between 1978 and 2007 and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her beat reporting and “her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court.”
Seven of the nine Supreme Court justices, all except for Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia, attended the farewell reception for Greenhouse in June 2008, where Roberts, who also went to Harvard, wished the reporter luck at “one of the best law schools in New Haven.”
Harold Koh, Dean of the Yale Law School, approached Greenhouse in 2008 when he heard she would accept a buyout offer at the Times. He invited her to teach and conduct research at Yale Law as part of the new Law and Media Program.
However, Greenhouse has also had her career bumps. For example, she has been criticized for being outspoken on issues such as abortion rights and religious fundamentalism. In a 2006 speech at Harvard, Greenhouse condemned the “law-free” nature of detention camps, the assault on the “reproductive freedom” of women, and the “literal fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
After this speech, debate ensued over whether journalists should be able to espouse their ideology in public venues. “We’re in a very sanctimonious period journalistically where journalists are supposed to be extremely knowledgeable and have no personal responses to the things they write about,” Greenhouse said, begrudging the criticism she received after her speech at Harvard. “I thought I had the right to operate as an informed adult citizen in the world in the happenings of the day.”
A Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals judge coined the alleged phenomenon that federal judges attempt to gratify and gain acceptance from reporters with some of their legal decisions as the “Greenhouse Effect.” Yale professor Fred Strebeigh, who recently published his book Equal: Women Reshape American Law, said that while there is debate over whether the Greenhouse Effect influenced the Supreme Court, the famed reporter has undoubtedly had an impact on the American public.
“Whether or not there was a Greenhouse Effect that actually altered the way justices at different times cast their votes or saw the law, certainly on the nation there has been a Greenhouse Effect that has lifted our sense of how deeply informed and broadly contextualized coverage of the law can be and it makes us look for reporters who, like Linda Greenhouse, will really delve in the law and devote a career to deeply understanding the law, so that we can begin to understand it as well as we should.”