Why you should care
Not everyone’s fluent in legalese. Sometimes all we need is a translator to let us know what the Supreme Court is really up to and how it affects our lives. Enter BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner.
Chris Geidner has a not-so-secret superpower that has been a catalyst for his successful career: he’s a dork.
Before you get all Judgy-McJudgerson on us, we’d like to point out that this is a descriptor Geidner, 36, wears like a badge of honor. ”I’ve always just been a big dork. That’s the truth,” Geidner says with his characteristic boisterous laugh. “In middle school I remember being obsessed with a big topic every year.” The Ohio native jumped from reading about Lincoln and the Civil War to his “Kennedy Phase” of reading material. ”I have always found the way we govern ourselves to be extraordinarily interesting.”
He decided to work at BuzzFeed because he felt it was really important to have people who aren’t LGBT reading his articles.
Geidner is a journalist turned lawyer turned award-winning legal journalist. His reporting and legal skills inform each other, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Add in a dash of the “explainer of stuff,” sparkle à la Bill Clinton, and you get a reporter with a keen ability to translate legal language to a big mainstream audience. The perfect type of person to be BuzzFeed’s Legal Editor explaining Supreme Court decisions to the masses.
If you’re jarred by the notion of BuzzFeed employing a legal editor, here’s a newsflash: the wildly popular site is not just composed of lists about twenty-somethings and cats — it provides stellar reporting on politics, investigative stories, and more. Geidner contributed a list of his own titled ”11 Supreme Court Cases That Could Change The U.S. in The Coming Year .” Reviewing the decisions SCOTUS will face this term, he explains the stakes of seemingly isolated cases:
”Along with the recess appointment case testing executive power and the chemical weapons treaty case testing legislative power, a third case tests the extent of judicial power in the context of bankruptcy judges.”
When the Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissed the Proposition 8 appeal in rulings earlier this year, Geidner put the justices’ words in conversation with a long history of human rights and American government:
And though Chief Justice John Roberts claimed in his dissent that it is “undeniable” that the court’s opinion is “based on federalism,” Kennedy himself takes aim squarely at the equal protection elements of the case — concerns that formed the basis of his earlier gay-rights opinions.
Don’t we all need someone to do the dirty work of reading lengthy legislative decisions and converting them into English, with fine-tuned legal analysis as a bonus?
The DOMA and Proposition 8 rulings were two of the biggest legal decisions made in 2013 by SCOTUS – and as LGBT rights cases, they were in Geidner’s sweet spot. As a gay man, lawyer and journalist, he’s had a unique perspective as he’s watched the United States transform its public opinion, education, and legislation on LGBT issues.
“Growing up, coming out in 1995, being closeted before then and watching things – then being in a more intelligent position by the time I was in law school to really examine things as the past decade of litigation has ensued,” he says, “I’ve been in a position to be watching all of this and really see both examples of the system working well and the system falling down, that I think make me really focused on how the systematic things have very personal effects.”
Geidner once described one of his interviewees as a man who “speaks quickly in paragraphs that contain many commas but few periods.” Geidner himself speaks in sentences that wind, with nary a period in sight. So to translate the translator: legal issues matter in a deeply personal way.
Political blogger Andrew Sullivan has called Geidner “one of the best gay reporters out there.” As LGBT legal matters have expoloded into public consciousness these past few years, so has Geidner.
”His ‘gets it’ quotient is stratospheric,” says Marc Spindelman, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Geidner was a student and research assistant of Spindelman’s. “He just gets it. He enables people to get it. He has a capacity to not only be there, see it, get it, do it, but also a natural talent for translating and opening his perspective up to a readership.”
Youngstown, Ohio is where Geidner grew up as the eldest of three children. In high school he was very outgoing, joining both the debate team and drama club. ”I had sort of my early starts in all of the areas I’m interested in,” he says cheekily.
- GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Article, 2012
- NLGJA Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for Excellence in LGBT Media, 2012
- NLGJA Excellence in News Writing, 2011 & 2012
- Best Law Blog for Law Dork in the Weblog Awards, 2005
He started out at American University, but when DC proved too expensive, he transferred to Youngstown State University. While at school and afterward, he wrote for the Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio. Then he headed to law school – which is when Chris Geidner started to measure his life in court cases and legislative decisions.
Geidner’s career and recent gay rights landmarks progressed alongside each other. During Geidner’s 1L year, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, effectively making homosexual sex activity legal across the U.S. (Note: this was in 2003 !!!) That year, Geidner also made his entrance into the world of legal blogging with Law Dork, which won Best Law Blog in the 2005 Weblog Awards.
Following a brief stint at a Columbus law firm and two years at the Ohio Attorney General’s office, he returned to writing in 2009, just after Proposition 8 passed and when DOMA complaints were first being filed. He returned to DC the week before Obama signed the Hate Crime Prevention Act into law in October 2009, eventually becoming senior political editor at Metro Weekly , D.C.’s LGBT news magazine.
He has a natural talent for translating and opening his perspective up to a readership.
Geidner’s coverage of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and a four-part series on the 15th anniversary of the passage of DOMA won awards, and he published work in The Atlantic Online, Salon , and The Advocate. His stories earned him the attention of Ben Smith, who was building up his team at BuzzFeed.
Smith covered gay politics closely and said he noticed Geidner because “he would just beat me at everything” and monopolized the LGBT political space. “He’s a very careful, smart guy. He’s not hasty to judgment. He’s very, very thorough and smart. He’s also very ambitious and his work always gets better,” says Smith.
Among the reasons he decided to work at BuzzFeed was that he felt it was really important to have people who aren’t LGBT reading his articles. There’s still a struggle for rights that needs to be reported, like in his recent fascinating profile on Mary Bonauto , a relatively unsung hero of the marriage equality movement. He says people look at the past year and see “everything has been so amazing since Obama came out for marriage equality. It’s like whoa, step back.”
Geidner’s work encompasses a wider breadth than just LGBT rights on his legal beat at BuzzFeed, such as criminal justice, voting rights and election law. It’s not a big shift, really – LGBT rights touch on a large range of constitutional, administrative and immigration issues. Geidner’s latest work will delve into Alabama’s death penalty process .
BatKid’s got a corner on the market of taking down criminals in San Francisco, but speaking truth to power in politics and criminal justice? With Chris Geidner, we have our very own law dork on the case.