David Beckwith, Who Scooped the Supreme Court on Roe, Dies at 79
David Beckwith, whose 1973 Time magazine scoop reporting the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling gained new attention this year after a draft of the opinion overturning Roe was leaked in advance, died on Sunday at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 79.
His wife, Susan Beckwith, said the cause was lung cancer.
In May, about two months before the Court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the news outlet Politico published Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft opinion in the case.
The leak was widely described as an unprecedented violation of the court’s rules. But as several news organizations noted, Mr. Beckwith had achieved a similar result in breaking the Roe news hours before it was officially announced in an article headlined “Abortion on Demand.”
Although the timing of Mr. Beckwith’s scoop was largely accidental, its substance was unassailable, a product of rock-solid reporting by a relative newcomer to Time’s Washington bureau.
Mr. Beckwith, who joined Time after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law in 1971, was covering legal affairs in July 1972 when a Washington Post article caught his eye.
Appearing without a byline, the Post article reported from a detailed inside perspective on the fierce debate among the justices over the pending abortion ruling.
Mr. Beckwith, intrigued by what he told The New Yorker this year was “one of the strangest stories I’d ever seen,” began his own reporting, interviewing more than a dozen people — justices, clerks and others connected to the court.
By January 1973, he knew the decision was imminent and began writing an article that added context and background to examine the abortion issue more broadly for Time’s millions of readers.
“Being a magazine reporter, a weekly, I was completely aware that the decision was likely to come out on a Monday or Tuesday, and that we at Time magazine wouldn’t have anything to give to readers for a week,” he told The Dallas Morning News this year.
At a source’s request, Mr. Beckwith and his editors held off on publishing until after Jan. 17, 1973, when the Roe decision was scheduled to be announced. The piece was included on page 46 of the issue that would hit newsstands on Jan. 22.
When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger unexpectedly delayed the opinion’s release — possibly so it would not hang over President Richard M. Nixon’s second inaugural — Mr. Beckwith had the news to himself for a few hours.
“Last week Time learned that the Supreme Court has decided to strike down nearly every anti-abortion law in the land,” he wrote.
He augmented that revelation with a prediction: “No decision in the court’s history, not even those outlawing public school segregation and capital punishment, has evoked the intensity of emotion that will surely follow this ruling.”
David Cameron Beckwith was born on Oct. 30, 1942, in Seattle, the elder of two brothers. His father, Cameron Beckwith, was a typesetter. His mother, Rhode (Bjorge) Beckwith, was a homemaker.
The family moved to Binghamton, N.Y., and later to Lyons Township, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where David graduated from high school. He studied history at Carleton College in Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1964, and received a master’s in journalism at Columbia University in 1965. He was a reporter for The Minneapolis Star and The Houston Chronicle before enrolling in law school.
In addition to his wife, a retired teacher and librarian whom he married in 1979, he is survived by two daughters, Fleur and Valeah Beckwith, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Beckwith recounted in an interview with Time this year that Justice Burger showed up at the Time offices a month or two after the decision was announced armed with “a loose-leaf binder, three inches thick, detailing all the reporting I’d done.”
Justice Burger called Mr. Beckwith a spy and demanded that he be fired because his reporting did harm “to the court and to the country.”
While Mr. Beckwith’s article had the gist of the forthcoming opinion, he did not have a full draft opinion, as Politico did in the Dobbs case. In that case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ordered an investigation into the leak.
Mr. Beckwith’s bosses were unmoved. He stayed at Time until 1978, when he left to become the founding editor of Legal Times, a Washington publication covering law, lobbying and regulatory affairs that is now affiliated with The National Law Journal.
In 1981 Mr. Beckwith returned to Time, where he covered various beats. He left again in 1989 to become Vice President Dan Quayle’s press secretary. In that role, Mr. Beckwith jousted regularly with reporters over what he argued was their often unfair coverage of Mr. Quayle.
He was later the communications director for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas; an adviser and aide to other Texas Republicans; and vice president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Because most Time articles did not carry bylines in 1973, many readers would not have known the Roe scoop was Mr. Beckwith’s. In any case, he told Time this year, the glory was fleeting: “It was immediately overtaken by the actual decision itself within a day.”