CNN "train wreck" comment on healthcare case leaves a mark

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 28, 2012 12:07pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of words spilled out of television news on Tuesday about the U.S. Supreme Court's historic healthcare case, but one early comment made a splash.

Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin appeared on CNN minutes after court arguments concluded for the day to declare the case "a train wreck for the Obama administration." The administration's lawyer gave an "awful" performance, he said.

During the next few hours, the assessment shaped early odds-making of how the court would rule in a few months. Opponents of the healthcare law celebrated Toobin while Democrats, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, balked.

"I've been in court a lot more than Jeffrey Toobin," Reid told reporters.

While saying he has great respect for Toobin, Reid said that the analyst, author and New Yorker magazine writer was reading too much into the court's skeptical questioning. "A lot of times they probe with those questions," Reid said.

Without mentioning Toobin by name, the White House came to the defense of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, whose performance defending the law Toobin panned. Verrilli argued "ably and skillfully," said White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler.

The interpretations of Supreme Court correspondents carry weight because there are few witnesses to the court's oral arguments, which are never broadcast on television and for which audio is available only after arguments.

Only about 400 people attend Supreme Court sessions. (To see how some were seated on Tuesday, click on link.reuters.com/byv37s)

Correspondents are rarely unanimous in how they read a case. Some said Toobin focused too closely on questions asked early in the two-hour session by Justice Anthony Kennedy. A possible deciding vote, Kennedy later asked tough questions of the lawyers on the other side.

Back on CNN on Wednesday, Toobin repeated the "awful" line but added he did not want to overstate the impact. "The lawyers I think really don't matter all that much," he said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Howard Goller and Vicki Allen)

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