An Afternoon with Joan Biskupic

As readers of this blog probably know, every summer we run a reading series at different corporate offices in New York. For this year’s Summer Law Reading, we featured author and veteran Washington journalist, Joan Biskupic. Joan’s career as a Supreme Court correspondent and her coverage of some of its most well-known judges has imbued her with fascinating insight into the minds of those who wield the law in order to carry out justice.

We met Joan in the lobby of the offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. She was warm, inviting, and down-to-earth. She maintained this demeanor as she regaled her audience with tales about Supreme Court Justices worthy of their own entertainment series. With her knowledge and welcoming personality, it was easy to see why some of the most powerful people in the country had no qualms about letting her into their world.


American Original, a biography about Justice Antonin Scalia has been recommended by Harvard University Law Professor Laurence Tribe as a must-read “for anyone who wants to understand the most influential and interesting voice of the most powerful movement in contemporary American law.”

After a quick introduction by BtB Executive Director Jo Umans, Joan spoke about examining the connection between her subjects’ early lives and where these justices landed toward the latter end of their careers. She was particularly interested in understanding what sort of mantle people carried when they were a groundbreaking individual; for example, what is it like on the Supreme Court when you’re the first woman, African American, or Latino justice?

joan speaking

Joan remembers speaking to Justice Sotomayor about how her upbringing affects her when she hears discriminatory rhetoric used in court cases

This question inspired the mantra that she used to guide her when gathering and relaying information about her subjects. In an anecdote about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Joan emphasized how interviewing Ginsburg influenced her philosophy. Justice Ginsburg once said, “a wise woman and a wise man will eventually come to the same conclusions,” but, in a one-on-one conversation, she also revealed how personal experience could inform very different views of the law.

In an interview in 2009, Ginsburg recalled a case about a young girl who had been strip-searched (in the presence of a female nurse and female teacher) under suspicion of carrying illegal drugs. The girl didn’t have to remove all her clothing, but the experience was harrowing enough that she was mortified by her ordeal. The sentiment that Justice Ginsburg’s male colleagues had was essentially, “what’s the big deal?” Ginsburg’s resolved their lack of understanding with a simple phrase, “you know, they’ve never been a 13-year old girl.”

Joan realized that though wise people reached the same place, we were all informed by our background and our experiences in life. She also understood that in making decisions, there were no hard and fast rules, but shades of gray and that some justices–informed by their upbringing–didn’t have these experiences to necessarily recognize those shades of gray.

Before concluding, she took a few questions from the audience, and helped us speculate who could be next in line to succeed  several Supreme Court Justices after Obama’s term ended.

law student question

All too soon it was time for Joan to leave, but not before chatting with law interns and signing a few books. She was especially pleased to meet a fan of hers who had read one of her biographies in high school.

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We couldn’t have asked for a more eye-opening and captivating literary experience and we’re thankful that Joan chose to spend her afternoon with us.

If you’d like to understand the inner workings of the Supreme Court, you can find her guides and biographies about Justice Scalia and Justice O’Conner on shelves now. Her latest book, Breaking In, an account of the political history leading to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment will be in stores this October.