A Leak That Slowed, but Did Not Stop, the Presses

On Monday night, an alert popped into a New York Times internal messaging channel: A draft United States Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and end federal protection of abortion rights had been leaked and published. A court leak was an incredibly rare event and, if the document was confirmed as authentic, the decision would reshape women’s access to abortion in many states and send a shock through U.S. politics.

It was 8:47 p.m., and leading The Times’s report was war news from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The first print edition had closed at 8 p.m. There were two more deadlines before the last edition of the newspaper closed at 10:30.

In an instant, the direction of the night changed. Over the next several hours, dozens of Times journalists sprang into action to confirm the leak, report the news and put the story into as many newspapers as possible. They worked across time zones and from the office, home and the printing plant.

“It was a slow tsunami of a news story,” said Steve Kenny, director of the newsroom’s night coverage. “We see the wave, but how big is it going to get?”

After reading the leaked opinion, Mr. Kenny immediately called Times editors in New York and Washington to direct the reporting process. Not only would the draft opinion signal a change in jurisprudence; the leak was also an anomaly for the court. Confirming that the document was real was an obvious hurdle.

Understand the Challenge to Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court’s decision could be the most consequential to women’s access to abortion since 1973.

An Extraordinary Breach: The leak of a draft opinion suggesting that the justices will end the constitutional right to abortion will be investigated by the Supreme Court marshal, but it’s unlikely the Justice Department will be involved.The Court’s Transformation: As it appears to be close to issuing its ruling in the case of the Mississippi law that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court looks increasingly politics-drivenDestroyed Trust: Justice Clarence Thomas addressed the leak, saying that it had done irreparable damage to the Supreme Court.Protests: Following the leak, supporters of abortion rights have staged demonstrations across the country, including outside the homes of several justices.A 17th Century Judge Cited: Lord Matthew Hale, who wrote that women were contractually obligated to husbands, was cited eight times in Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion.

“The Supreme Court is a famously opaque institution,” said Nathan Willis, the Washington bureau’s night editor. Even in the best-case scenario, he added, the leaked draft decision would be “extremely hard to authenticate ourselves.”

After talking with Mr. Kenny, Mr. Willis called Adam Liptak, The Times’s Supreme Court correspondent. Mr. Liptak did not say hello, but answered “‘I know what you are calling about,’” Mr. Willis said.

After reaching out to sources, who could not corroborate the authenticity of the draft, Mr. Liptak, who has covered the court since 2008 and used to work as a lawyer, turned to the document itself, which Politico had published. The text had the layout, structure, format and tone he had spent years analyzing.

It was “inconceivable,” Mr. Liptak said, that the document was fraudulent.

Julie Bloom, a deputy editor on the National desk, was at the Metropolitan Opera when the news broke. She left in the middle of the performance, as soon as she saw the alert.

The newsroom, though, was prepared. Tamara Audi, another National editor, had been leading a team for months that was planning for an eventual decision in the case before the court, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and reporting on a series of state laws that limited access to abortion. The reporters Elizabeth Dias and Kate Zernike were already working, too.

“We were lucky to quickly build on that and draw from their expertise,” Ms. Bloom added.

The Times sent a news alert to online readers at 9:30 p.m., after it had published its first article on the draft decision, written by the White House reporter Michael D. Shear. By then, the team that edits the print newspaper was rearranging the layout and redrawing the front page. To deliver late editions of the paper, with a fleshed out article by Mr. Shear and Mr. Liptak with contributions from six other reporters, the team at The Times’s printing plant in College Point, Queens, slowed the presses. Delaying print production meant more readers would receive an updated paper.

The State of Roe v. Wade

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What is Roe v. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme court decision that legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on Jan. 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a modest Midwestern Republican and a defender of the right to abortion, wrote the majority opinion.

What was the case about? The ruling struck down laws in many states that had barred abortion, declaring that they could not ban the procedure before the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. That point, known as fetal viability, was around 28 weeks when Roe was decided. Today, most experts estimate it to be about 23 or 24 weeks.

What else did the case do? Roe v. Wade created a framework to govern abortion regulation based on the trimesters of pregnancy. In the first trimester, it allowed almost no regulations. In the second, it allowed regulations to protect women’s health. In the third, it allowed states to ban abortions so long as exceptions were made to protect the life and health of the mother. In 1992, the court tossed that framework, while affirming Roe’s essential holding.

What would happen if Roe were overturned? Individual states would be able to decide whether and when abortions would be legal. The practice would likely be banned or restricted heavily in about half of them, but many would continue to allow it. Thirteen states have so-called trigger laws, which would immediately make abortion illegal if Roe were overturned.

Online, The Times began a live briefing around 11 p.m. Jason Bailey, the night editor on the National desk, coordinated with the newsroom in Seoul to edit the live coverage.

“Our crew was focused on informing readers in the immediacy of the moment,” Mr. Bailey said. “At the same time, my editing colleagues on National were already brainstorming how to robustly cover the issue over the coming days.”

Close to midnight, a Times reporter was on the scene outside the Supreme Court, where protesters had started to gather. Reporters from the Politics, National, Washington and other desks built news articles and analysis to publish on the live briefing, with statements from politicians and voices from citizens.

Coverage of the Supreme Court’s draft decision continues. Articles last week examined what the end of Roe v. Wade would mean for different states, the conservative legal movement and the Supreme Court’s approach to precedents.

But a hectic night in journalism laid the foundation.

“We’re used to handling big stories,” Ms. Bloom said. “The machine kicks in and people know what to do.”