This year marked a major turning point for the U.S. Supreme Court, with the announced retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer and the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American woman to serve on the court. NBC News also faces a major transition in its reporting on the court: Pete Williams, who has covered the nation’s highest court since 1993, is retiring from journalism in July.
Williams, 70, has been at the forefront of almost three decades of major judicial decisions from the high court, including Bush v. Gore, which declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election; Obergefell v. Hodges, which in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage nationwide; and decisions that upheld the Affordable Care Act.
His command of a complex news beat, which in his words has a “high homework-to-getting-on-the-air ratio,” has earned wide respect from across the NBCUniversal News Group. When NBC News President Noah Oppenheim announced Williams’ plan to retire on May 19, he said Williams “is quite simply one of the most respected, trusted and steadfast names in news.”
TODAY co-host Savannah Guthrie said of Williams, “Around our newsroom, we have a saying: ‘In Pete we trust.’”
Williams’ final weeks as a Supreme Court correspondent also promises to be historic, as a leaked draft opinion suggests the court is poised to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which granted the right to abortion.
In an internal newsroom call with CNBC anchor Shepard Smith on June 7, Williams reflected that if the court does overturn Roe, “it would be one of the very few times in American history that the Supreme Court has ever overturned an earlier decision that declared a constitutional right. And it would certainly be the only time for a right that had considerable public support.”
Smith asked Williams if he would continue to write about the Supreme Court on another platform, but Williams responded he would “pass the torch to someone else,” adding: “Those days are soon to be behind me.”
Before Williams hung up his reporter’s microphone, NBCUniversal’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Team invited him to another internal newsroom event with Ken Strickland, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief, on June 8. Read selections of their discussion below, on the impact of the court’s pending abortion ruling, the potential influence of Jackson and Williams’ reporting career.
Could Roe v. Wade ruling impact gay marriage?
Strickland: If you believe the leaked memo, and we have no reason not to believe its authenticity, there have been a lot of questions raised about whether Justice Samuel Alito would say that Roe v. Wade can’t stand because abortion is not referenced in the Constitution. Well, what happens to gay marriage? That’s not referenced in the Constitution. Let’s dig into what’s in the Constitution and what’s not.
Williams: Well, I’m going to answer that question two ways. One, you can take Justice Alito at his word. All these cases that deal with finding constitutional rights that aren’t explicit in the Constitution – like interracial marriage, the right to refuse medical treatment, the right to decide how your children would be educated, the right to travel – all of those things are not explicitly in the Constitution either. And Alito said the difference is that abortion involves a moral decision, because there’s a life at stake, and those other decisions do not. So what he says twice in the opinion, just because we’re going to overturn Roe, doesn’t mean we’re casting doubt on those other decisions.
On the other hand, about 20 years ago, there was a Supreme Court case on whether there’s a constitutional right to assisted suicide. And the Supreme Court said no, there isn’t. And the test is whether it’s something that is deeply rooted in American history and tradition and is part of the essential doctrine of ordered liberty. And so basically, Alito says abortion flunks that test. Well, guess what? Gay marriage will flunk that test, too – there was very little gay marriage at the time the Constitution was written, or at the time the 14th Amendment was added after the Civil War. So you can say that Obergefell v. Hodges is in danger.
The Obergefell decision talks a lot about dignity and fairness, but there’s a way to read it to say it’s really based on it’s an equal protection decision. You know, Patrick can marry Patricia, but he can’t marry Edward, and therefore it was a form of sex discrimination, it was a form of equal protection violation. So Obergefell does stand somewhat on its own.
But I’d say the other point is this, and this maybe gets to the essence of the question about culture and the law and how they intersect. From the moment Roe v. Wade was decided, a whole “pro life” movement became a platform in the Republican Party. It was a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees chosen by Republican presidents. There’s a “March for Life” in Washington every summer.
Contrast that to the public reaction after the Obergefell decision. It’s been seven years – we don’t have an annual march in Washington of people who want to get rid of same-sex marriage. It’s never been a political party platform. It’s not a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees.
How does a case get to the Supreme Court? It gets there because a state passes a law and then it’s challenged. That’s how Roe v. Wade got to the court in the first place. That’s how the new abortion case from Mississippi got there, too. Can you think of a state that’s going to outlaw same-sex marriage? It just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of popular support for that.
Will Ketanji Brown Jackson change SCOTUS?
Strickland: President Biden promised to nominate an African American woman to the court and successfully did so. But with that, the liberal minority of the court would not likely have the votes to overturn something. I’d love for you to explain the significance of what that means for the court going forward.
Williams: From the sort of 50,000-feet level, substituting Ketanji Brown Jackson for Stephen Breyer is probably not going to change the voting patterns in the immediate future. To use the shorthand, you’re trading one liberal for another. Obviously, they have different views about different things, but it is amazing how similar their backgrounds are. They both served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
But there’s a saying, every time there’s a new justice, you have a new court. If you look at the persuasion that takes place among the justices in their private conferences, many of them have talked about how they changed their thinking when Thurgood Marshall came on to the Supreme Court, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor has talked about trying to overcome the views of her male colleagues when she first got there. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as an advocate for the ACLU on women’s rights and as a member of the court, changed a lot of attitudes of her male colleagues, saying, for example, that women shouldn’t serve on juries is just so antiquated.
You can’t underestimate the persuasive power that Jackson’s presence on the court will have. Is she going to change Clarence Thomas’ mind or Sam Alito’s mind about certain things? Clearly not, but on the margins I think you’ll begin to see some change.
Jackson will be there a long time. These justices are coming on younger and younger. She won’t be the youngest – she’s 51, Amy Coney Barrett is 50 – but still, she’s going to be around a long time.
How do you report on SCOTUS?
Strickland: It’s important to note that Pete is not a lawyer. However, if you come into his office, you would think so, with all the law books he has on a shelf. What is the magic behind your ability to not only get it right, but to easily dissect opinions and within seconds report it to the world?
Williams: You have to remember that when you’re covering a Supreme Court case, you’ve had several bites of the apple. You see the lower court decision, you see the appeals court decision, you see the briefs filed, the case to hear the oral argument. You have a lot of chances to get into your head what the issues are. And you know, it’s just a matter of preparation. I will say one of the great things about NBC is that they’ve given me time to do that. The Supreme Court beat has a “high homework-to-getting-on-the-air” ratio, and the fact that you’ve allowed me to do that is extremely helpful.