W.Va. native retires from U.S. Supreme Court
CHARLESTON — The U.S. Supreme Court — one of the three branches of government — is the final word on issues of constitutionality. The “United States Reports” is the official record and the final version of the high court’s opinions. For the last 31 years, that record has been edited by a West Virginian.
Morgantown native Christine Luchok Fallon retired as the Reporter of Decisions for the U.S. Supreme Court in September. She became the 16th Reporter of Decisions and the first woman to hold the position in 2011, serving as the Deputy Reporter of Decisions since 1989.
“To have been a part of a function of the third branch of the government has been a real privilege for me,” Fallon said by phone from her Northern Virginia home. “I felt that it was just time for me to pass the reins on, but it is work that I truly enjoyed doing and to be a part of something so very important has been really important to me.”
The daughter of the late John Luchok, a former University editor and director of publications at West Virginia University, Fallon graduated from WVU magna cum laude in 1974, but decided to go into law, graduating from the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in 1977.
Practicing public interest law in Florida and Pennsylvania, Fallon ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps and worked as a legal editor for the Research Institute of America in Washington, D.C., from 1982 until 1989, when she was hired by the Supreme Court as Deputy Reporter of Decisions.
“When I took the job at the court, my father loved it because he himself was an editor,” Fallon said. “I grew up seeing him with copy spread out on the kitchen table, editing manuscripts for things at the university. It was just really funny that I ended up in a similar field.”
During her time with the court, Fallon assisted with the editing and publication of 72 volumes of the “United States Reports” and oversaw the publication of another 29 volumes as the Reporter of Decisions — one of five positions at the Supreme Court created by law. The Reporter of Decisions is selected by all nine justices of the Supreme Court and appointed by an order of the Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court receives more than 7,000 petitions each term — which runs from October to October — but only hears approximately 70 cases per term.
“Accurate reporting of the court’s opinions is important to attorneys because when they come to the court, they may be asked to distinguish cases, so it’s important that you know exactly what the court has said. And judges and law professors also use the reports,” Fallon said.
The editing process for the Court’s opinions is very meticulous. Fallon’s office carefully examines each opinion for what is called a technical edit.
“It’s not an edit, like your editor might look at your article and say, ‘Oh, this would be better said this way.’ We don’t do that,” Fallon said. “We examine the opinion of the case for accuracy of what’s in the opinion, like accuracy of citations, whether the quotations are accurate. The court has developed style rules over the years that apply to their opinions. We maintain those rules in our office. We also look for typographical errors and grammatical errors.”
Staff attorneys and paralegal editors review most drafts of opinions in all cases before they are released to the public. Once they are publicly released, they are re-edited as they are prepared for publication in the “United States Reports.”
The Reporter of Decisions also produces syllabi — analytical summaries of the court’s opinions. These are works of the office and not the court itself, but each syllabus is sent to the justices for their approval. The syllabi are intended to provide an easy-to-understand synopsis of the opinions for reporters, scholars, and the general public.
Fallon’s working relationship with the justices was cordial and professional. Out of the three branches of government, the Supreme Court has the fewest number of employees, numbering less than 500. Fallon worked for a total of 19 Court justices and worked at the court longer than the current sitting nine Supreme Court justices.
Regardless of any philosophical and political differences, Fallon said the justices are a close and collegial body. After all, “If you have an opinion and you have fewer than five votes, you can’t have an opinion of the court.”
Fallon’s retirement on Sept. 25 came one week after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton four years after Fallon was hired by the court.
“I had one of the worst last weeks of work ever when Justice Ginsburg died … it was incredibly sad,” Fallon said. “She was truly a remarkable person and an excellent legal writer.”
While she plans to enjoy her retirement, Fallon remains proud of her work and the work of the entire staff of the U.S. Supreme Court.
(Adams can be contacted at email@example.com)