‘Passing Judgment’ explores issues directly affecting listeners
By Bliss Bowen
One of the few points people across the political spectrum can agree on is that American life in 2020 was noisy, thanks to everyone continually talking—but not always listening—about the turmoil in which we are living. So, while querying Loyola Law School professor Jessica A. Levinson and news radio producer Joe Armstrong about the genesis of their law-and-politics podcast “Passing Judgment” (passingjudgementpod.com), the question inevitably arose: What do they hope to add to that already frenzied national conversation?
For Levinson, the answer is public service, and more meaningful dialogue.
“I have a segment on one of the local NPR stations weekly, and I’ve always just wanted to have longer conversations,” she explained.
Rather than merely previewing a problem or talking about, say, the Electoral College only in mechanical terms of how states vote, Levinson explores causes and consequences. Recent conversations with guests such as MSNBC contributor Kimberly Atkins and Congressmen Ted Lieu and Eric Swalwell have calmly analyzed legal and political conundrums.
“My mom has always told me, people are really interested if you can explain why it affects them,” she said. “Not in an abstract, ‘Let me give you a lecture’ sense, but, ‘Come have a conversation with me and this is why the Electoral College actually does change your daily life’ sense. What was it designed to do? What does it actually do? How does it change presidential elections? How is it playing out this particular time? Why did we set it up this way? Can we abolish it without changing the constitution?”
“Passing Judgment” is not a legal advice show, but they do strive to deliver clarity by zeroing in on what Armstrong calls the “overlap in the Venn Diagram” between governance and law—constitutional issues that directly affect people’s daily lives.
During the past decade, he had booked Levinson on numerous radio shows when he needed an expert on law and politics, and told her to give him a shout if she ever wanted to make her own podcast. This summer she invited him to do “Passing Judgment” with her, and while developing the program they’ve heeded a consistent mantra: keep things “accessible and informative.”
“Look, we live in an era when the media is not just a firehouse in your mouth, it’s Niagara Falls in your mouth,” said Armstrong, who sees himself as an advocate for the audience. “It’s 24/7, it’s coming at you from all angles, and so much of it is opinion-based I feel like we’ve lost our North Star in terms of how to get information that’s then parsed and analyzed for people.”
During a recent episode with California Congresswoman Karen Bass, Levinson paraphrased thousands of dinner table debates when she asked, “Why is it important to have diversity in government?”
Is it important so citizens can see themselves mirrored in elected representatives? Or to broaden the facets of experience that inform official policy? Bass’s response: “Because you want the best people.” Their session incisively demonstrated the show’s egalitarian purpose.
Upcoming guests include more congressional representatives, epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, and “An American Sickness” author and health care journalist Elizabeth Rosenthal. Post-election, Levinson said it is “freeing” to expand discussions into civics, media literacy, and governmental structure. In future episodes, she wants to identify ways to “fortify and retrofit” government institutions cracked by presidential norm-busting. (“There are a lot of different laws we never really stress-tested because everybody acted in a certain way; now we have.”)
According to PodcastHosting.org, as of December 2020, there are more than 1.5 million podcasts; 50% of American homes are “podcast fans,” and podcast listeners subscribe, on average, to six shows. Along with education and comedy, news is one of the most in-demand podcasting genres. Focus on nonpartisan, small-d democratic foundations and processes is not typical.
“We’re counterbalancing misinformation or disinformation,” Levinson said. “I really am a no-preference party voter. When we talk about my rage with Attorney General Bill Barr, or post-election litigation, we’re never having a conversation where anything could be read as conservative or liberal. It’s ‘Do you support the world of reality?’ (We’re) trying to talk about what actually is the law, or what actually is the politics behind it. … In our current situation, from my perspective, believing in science, believing in the rule of law, has become a proxy for partisan affiliation.”
Armstrong agreed. “We’re more concerned with reality itself than we are with trying to portray a specific viewpoint. … We have a participatory government, and we can play a part in it. We vote. There are people trying to ensure as many people can vote as possible, and there are people trying to curtail our rights to vote. … It’s important to be an educated consumer of news.”
Since launching on June 30, they’ve recorded two to four shows a week, remotely—Armstrong from his home studio in Glendale, Levinson from her residence in West LA. Episodes stretch from 11 to 55 minutes, with various professors, authors, politicians and political strategists, reporters and media personalities dialing in. Constitutional law expert Garrett Epps impersonated Christopher Walken while dissecting judicial temperament (not for nothing is the show titled “Passing Judgment”). A lively back-and-forth with Barbara Boxer began with the retired California senator riffing on her nine rules of “The Art of Tough” (the title of her 2016 book). That interview surprised Levinson.
“Sen. Boxer came to play, which was really fun,” she recalled. “She put me through my paces in a very good way. I thought we were going to talk about being in the Senate, and maybe the confirmation hearing of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and ‘the Senate is an institution’—and it ended up being much more a conversation about gender and politics and women running for office.”
In other episodes, the articulate legal eagle swaps perspectives with Armstrong, a music-making political junkie who did not originally intend to be an on-air voice. When Florida Congressman Ted Yoho verbally accosted New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez within earshot of a reporter and Ocasio-Cortez responded with a historic speech on the House floor, it was a springboard for Levinson and Armstrong to ponder gender dynamics in the workplace and the effects of unequal gender representation in politics. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death occasioned contemplation of the cultural and legal ramifications of an iconic Supreme Court Justice’s death. On the day of the Electoral College vote, Levinson and Armstrong planned a “big gold star show”—which instantly became bigger when Barr announced his resignation.
Avid conversationalists, Levinson and Armstrong say they are mindful that audience members give them their most precious resource: time.
“We’re into having grown-up conversations,” Armstrong said. “Ours is not just another podcast of us spending 90 minutes (talking about nothing). We’re trying to get really important information to listeners.”