Cases before the Supreme Court demand supreme PR

In many cases, a Supreme Court ruling is not the end of the road, but the start for both sides' outreach, giving them a chance to frame the debate.

In many cases, a Supreme Court ruling is not the end of the road, but the start for both sides' outreach, giving them a chance to frame the debate.

Ask your average high school social studies teacher, and he'll tell you decisions made by the Supreme Court are final. But PR pros know better.

For many issues or advocacy groups, a judgment rendered by America's highest court is only the beginning, a starter gun for a renewed national debate. And the PR people who work on Supreme Court cases play a pivotal role in bringing that debate to life. By taking what is often a confusing, legalistic decision and reframing it in debatable terms, quickly, the PR pros help ensure that the debate goes on, even after the court has had its say.

For although there is no more hope of appeal in the court system, there are still two other branches of government. And as long as debate persists, there is hope that one, or both, might take action. Perhaps it's no coincidence that press conferences following decisions take place on the steps of the Supreme Court, which peer out across First Street to Congress.

This Wednesday, a case will come before the court that could likely generate more debate than it will settle. The case of Gonzales v. Oregon will test the legality of Oregon's landmark assisted-suicide law, sort of. What it will technically decide is whether the government can prosecute Oregon doctors under the federal Controlled Substances Act for administering lethal drugs to help patients die.

If the government wins, it would effectively mean the end for Oregon's 11-year-old assisted suicide law. If the government loses, it means the law stands, for now. And that's provided the ruling is clear and simple, which they rarely are. Any number of legal possibilities exists between those two decisions.

That is just one reason why those fighting to maintain the law are armed to the teeth with messaging experts.

The Death with Dignity National Center (DWD), self-appointed guardian and co-author of the original Oregon "Death with Dignity" legislation, has spent the past several months gearing up for this Wednesday's hearing, which it trusts will usher in a period of unprecedented media attention for the issue - and unprecedented work for its PR people. Its partner in managing the media debate is Witeck-Combs Communications (WCC).

"We're trying to make sure that there is transparency and plenty of information for the reporters who will diligently and rightly cover this case," says WCC VP Colleen Dermody. "This issue needs to be cleared up; people need to know where the government stands."

Dermody is no stranger to doing PR surrounding Supreme Court cases, particularly culturally divisive ones. She's worked on a number of abortion-related cases and, hence, knows a thing or two about the roller coaster ride she's signed on for.

"When you're working on a Supreme Court case, you do feel that more urgent sense that you're wrapped into the fabric of the country. You feel that you really have to hold yourself to a higher standard because what you're working on really will affect people's lives at this level," she says. "It creates a lot of intensity in a very short period."

Working against the clock

As with many public affairs campaigns, doing PR around a Supreme Court case presents a timeline with several spikes in activity. But one can never be sure precisely when they'll come.

The lead-up to the hearing is probably the easy part, if such a thing exists. "Because of the spotlight of the Supreme Court case, you do have an opportunity to influence the way people see the issue; not as some court case, but this broader case of, are people [understanding how it affects] their lives?" says Parker Blackman, West Coast MD for Fenton Communications, which has represented a number of groups going before the court.
But the climax of any Supreme Court case is easily the rendering of the decision - an event that usually takes place with very little warning.

"The timing around the decision is difficult because the court doesn't say, 'Hey everybody, we're going to hand out our decision [the] day after tomorrow,'" says Blackman.

Instead, the court provides a range of dates when the decision could happen, always at 10am, which results in a lot of lawyers and PR people gathering at the court or waking up earlier than they have to for weeks at a time, usually to no avail. Some people call these "the fire drills."

But when a decision is announced - usually from some court employee simply walking it down the stairs or, if you're lucky, a "heads up" phone call from a clerk of the court - the race is on to decipher the justices' legalese and to be the first to address the media.

The first hours are crucial, as that's when the press is most interested in the case. So the side to interpret the ruling and get its version out first has a significant advantage in framing the debate going forward.

"Obviously first is best," says John Kramer, VP of communications for the Institute for Justice, which has brought several high-profile cases to the court in recent years. "What you want to do is be the first person to the reporters - but with substance. You have to be able to offer some genuine analysis of what the decision is."

But that's no easy task. Most groups will have a PR person at the court, waiting for a decision, ready to rush it back to some conference room where the PR team can decipher it and fashion a response in concert with the lawyers. Most admit to drafting several press releases beforehand, anticipating a number of different responses.

But the race to frame the decision is more than just ego. For although the decision might be the end of the trial, it is almost always the beginning of a new campaign, and the first hours are crucial. "To [paraphrase] Winston Churchill, [the decision] isn't the end; it isn't even the beginning of the end," says Kramer. "But it is definitely the end of the beginning."

Taking the decision further

As an example of this, the court in June ruled that states could not legalize marijuana for medical purposes, but not because of any problems inherent to the drug itself. Instead, the court ruled that doing so would violate Congress' right to enforce federal anti-drug laws. In effect, the ruling punted the ball to Congress, which is where the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which was deeply involved in the case itself, immediately tried to take the fight.

"It was shortly after the decision that a bipartisan amendment was introduced in the House to try to get some movement on [the ruling] and make changes," recalls Bruce Mirken, MPP's VP of communications. The amendment didn't go far, but it does illustrate how quickly Supreme Court decisions can spur the need for more public affairs work.

Or when Kramer's group lost this year's much-watched eminent-domain case, Kelo v. New London, it wasted no time sounding the horn for the campaign that would build off the legal precedent set by the ruling.

"Two days after the decision in the Kelo case, we announced a three-year, multimillion-dollar campaign to fight eminent-domain abuses at the state and local level," says Kramer. "We're working with legislators from 31 states and have already passed legislation in two."

For now, DWD and Dermody are focusing on this week's hearing, and they have begun to think about preparing for the decision, which is expected in the spring. But DWD communications director Robert Kennedy acknowledges the likelihood that the decision will necessitate a new effort.

"We will have to work on a subsequent political battle following the Supreme Court decision," he says. Good thing for him he's got PR people ready to face Congress.

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