Barrett McGurn, a former newspaper reporter hired by Chief Justice Warren Burger as the Supreme Court's first public information officer to improve relations with the press, died July 2 at age 95. Cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to this obituary in today's Washington Post.
McGurn served as PIO for the Court from 1973 to 1982, after reporting for the New York and International Herald Tribune, and serving as a State Department spokesman. He was a formal man with an impish smile and eyebrows that had a life of their own. At the Court, he had something of a love-hate relationship with the press. He had a reporter's sensibilities, and understood the media's constant need for timely information. But his loyalty was to a Court that was secretive, and to a chief justice whose contempt for the media was palpable. The papers of the late Thurgood Marshall included memos from McGurn to Burger reporting on conversations he overheard among reporters in the Court pressroom.
Early in his tenure, McGurn arranged for a press conference by Justice William O. Douglas to mark his his passage into first place in terms of longevity on the Court. It attracted extensive media attention and was a rare but successful event.
McGurn helped steer the Court through the dilemma posed by the publication of The Brethren in 1979; how to maintain the Court's privacy and reputation while reporters Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong relentlessly researched an unprecedented investigative work on the Court, much of it based on interviews and leaks from clerks and justices themselves.
In his quirky but valuable Court memoir titled America's Court, McGurn wrote in 1997 that The Brethren "proved that with sufficient resources, energy, nerve and guile, the Supreme Court's security could be breached, but it left unaddressed why the Court should not be allowed some reticence as it serves the cause of justice."