Summer podcast listening: 2023-2024

Reg Graycar

It’s been a busy year for news about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and in particular, about Justice Clarence Thomas who has been the subject of a number of revelations about his ties to, and history of largesse from, influential donors known for funding litigation in the Supreme Court.1 Amid calls from bodies such as the American Bar Association for SCOTUS to adopt a judicial code of ethics,2 most of the focus has been on Justice Thomas and whether he ought to have, or ought to be obliged to, disclose those financial links with donors who may have connections to litigation that comes before the Court.3

It’s therefore timely that Slate’s excellent podcast series, Slow Burn, which has made some of the best podcasts about key incidents in recent US history (for example Watergate,4 the impeachment of President Bill Clinton,5 and Roe v Wade6) should devote its 8th season to Justice Thomas.

‘Becoming Justice Thomas’7 opens with a veritable journalistic coup. Before the news had broken about billionaire Harlan Crow’s history of gifts to Justice Thomas, which included buying Justice Thomas’s mother’s house, renovating it, and then permitting her to live there, reporter Joel Anderson knocked on the door of a house in Savannah, Georgia. He was greeted and invited in by Ms Leola Thomas, Justice Thomas’s 94-year-old mother, whom he interviewed for the series. That interview alone (in the first episode) would make this compelling listening, but he also spoke with a number of old friends/colleagues from Thomas’s time at the seminary (his first chosen, but abandoned career was in the church); and from Holy Cross College where he was described as having been a ‘revolutionary’ who sported a beret as a member of the ‘Black Student Union’ which met every Sunday. By the time he went to Yale Law School, he was frustrated by the possibility that he was perceived as being there via affirmative action. The series looks at how the one-time young black activist became increasingly embittered about affirmative action and records the trajectory to his becoming perhaps the most conservative of the justices of SCOTUS.

‘Becoming Justice Thomas’ would warrant a full review of its own, but there are many other outstanding multi-episode podcasts recommended for summer listening. You will have to listen for yourselves.

Another 2023 journalistic coup was BBC journalist Josh Baker’s interviews with Shamima Begum, a young woman who left the UK at the age of 15 to join ISIS and has since had her UK citizenship revoked. In series 2 of his podcast, ‘I’m not a Monster’,8 he traces the journey of Shamima Begum from when she left the UK with two other young schoolgirls for their ultimate destination, Syria. Ms Begum has been unsuccessful in her legal challenges to the decision to prevent her from returning to the UK.9 Although hers is a household name in the UK, this is the first time that anyone has heard directly from her about the events that led her to become branded a security risk who cannot be permitted to return. This is despite the fact that the Tribunal that heard her most recent application accepted that:

there was a credible suspicion that Ms Begum had been trafficked to Syria within the meaning of relevant international legal instruments. Essentially, and from the perspective of those responsible for the trafficking, the motive for bringing her to Syria was sexual exploitation to which, as a child, she could not give a valid consent. The Commission also concluded that there were arguable breaches of duty on the part of various State bodies in permitting Ms Begum to leave the country as she did and eventually cross the border from Turkey into Syria.10

But that was found to be an insufficient basis upon which the Commission could find that the Home Secretary had erred in the decision under review. There is no shortage of podcasts about ‘gendered harms; – the things that are done to women because they are women.11 Some of the better known podcasts include ‘Believed’,12 about the American Olympics gymnastics coach Larry Nassar who abused hundreds of women and girls for decades before finally being brought to account; the work of Ronan Farrow in exposing long-running sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein in his podcast ‘Catch and Kill;13 and the ‘Jane Doe’ episode of This American Life.14

Two long-form series released in 2023, both of which involve Ivy League University medical centres, stand out for their quality.

‘The Retrievals’15 is the latest release from the Serial podcast stable. It concerns what happened to a number of women who were seeking assisted reproductive services at Yale Fertility Centre in 2020. Many of the women complained of excruciating pain during the egg retrieval process. Those complaints were generally dismissed. Even after it was discovered that a nurse had been diverting the pain medication for her own use, and injecting the patients with nothing but saline, the response of the medical centre was to write to the women telling them what had happened but assuring them that ‘outcomes were unaffected by the incident’. One of the most interesting aspects of this podcast is observing the different responses of a series of women from diverse backgrounds to, among other things, the ensuing legal developments, both criminal and civil.

Also released in 2023 is ‘Exposed: Cover Up at Columbia University’.16 This podcast recounts attempts to seek accountability for the actions of Dr Robert Haddon, a gynaecologist and obstetrician at Columbia University Medical Centre who sexually assaulted a large number of women over decades: at least from 1993 to 2012. That abuse also continued after Columbia was made aware of the conduct and indeed, after the police had been called by one of the victims: Columbia permitted him to continue to work after he was charged so long as he had a ‘chaperone’. At the time of writing, four of the episodes of this extraordinarily well researched and presented podcast have aired. The podcast was developed after a joint investigation by ProPublica17 and New York Magazine.18

Particularly compelling for a legal audience is the frankness of the interviewees, including lawyers who played roles in various aspects of the legal proceedings. These include the prosecutor whose decisions were overruled as well as her supervisor. We also hear from the doctor’s one-time defence attorney who candidly explains some of the tactics that are routinely used to discredit the women and discourage them from proceeding with any legal claims. Another theme that emerges is the important role of power, connection and access to the media: fortuitously, one of the victim survivors is, without giving too much away, very well connected. But perhaps most tellingly, the series reinforces the many disincentives and deterrents that are placed in the way of women who have been sexually abused or harmed in other ways that militate against pursuing any legal remedies. And what of the role of Columbia University in all this? Like Yale in ‘The Retrievals’, it does not cover itself in glory.

In last summer’s podcast review, I mentioned Rachel Maddow’s ‘Ultra’,19 which had commenced but was not complete at the time of writing. It certainly lived up to its promise.

Maddow has a new history podcast this year, ‘Deja News’20, also brilliantly researched and reported. Each episode takes an issue that is currently making news and shows how that issue has played out either at an earlier time or in the case of the current focus in the US on abortion law, in another jurisdiction (here, Poland). Themes covered include the invasion of Ukraine and its parallel with responses in the US to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia in 1936; Another example, ‘Reverse Freedom Riders’, draws parallels (and contrasts) between recent political stunts of ‘bussing’ refugees from Florida to the liberal states of the North East with the freedom rides of the early 1960s. Maddow is an exceptional reporter and historian and ‘Deja News’ joins ‘Ultra’ and ‘Bagman’21 (about former vice president Spiro T Agnew) in cementing her reputation as a leading producer of historical podcasts.

If that all seems too much like work for the summer, let’s conclude with some much lighter fare. In 2022, a podcast called ‘Normal Gossip’ appeared on many of the ‘best of’ lists of the year. The Atlantic described it as follows:

Normal Gossip is like entering another world. In each episode, the host Kelsey McKinney shares a story that’s been submitted to her for discussion. Real names are scrubbed. Facts are unchecked. Though normal is in the title, many of the tales are scintillating. McKinney begins by chatting with a guest about their relationship to gossip, and why it matters to both of them. … The show perfectly re-creates how people gossip [and] … seeks to formalize the art of gossip, giving it the respect it deserves, tantalizing events notwithstanding.

If you really feel the need for a legal connection, think ‘hearsay rule’: listening to ‘Normal Gossip’ will help you understand why it exists. It is a lot of fun and a tip: if you don’t have any interest in the weekly guests’ relationship to gossip, just skip ahead to where the episode’s ‘friend of a friend’ story begins.

Finally, the sleeper podcast hit of 2023 is one made in 2020 but has gathered momentum this year through reviews and word of mouth. The title, ‘Who shat on the floor at my wedding?’22 explains it all. As Tortoise media put it ‘Take two brides, a hundred wedding guests and one mystery defecator. Poodunnit? First released in 2020, it’s a literal shitshow of a podcast that suddenly has everyone talking’.23 As they go on to say, it’s ‘preposterously funny and entirely ridiculous. You can’t make this shit up’.

Happy summer listening and don’t laugh too loudly in public when listening to ‘Normal Gossip’ or ‘Who shat ….’.


1 Much of the research and reporting about these issues has been done by ProPublica: see for example: Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott and Alex Mierjeski, ‘Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire’, ProPublica, April 6 2023,; Brett Murphy and Alex Mierjeski, ‘Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel’, ProPublica, August 10 2023,; See also Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern, ‘Clarence Thomas’ Latest Pay-to-Play Scandal Finally Connects All the Dots’, September 23, 2023,; Zach Montague, ‘Clarence Thomas Twice Attended Koch Network Donor Summits’, The New York Times, September 22, 2023,

2 ‘American Bar Association Supreme Court Justices Should Follow Binding Code of Ethics, ABA House Says’, American Bar Association, February 27, 2023, The ABA is not the only body making such a call: The Washington Post reports that both Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Brett Kavanagh have endorsed the need for SCOTUS to adopt an ethics code: Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, ‘For Supreme Court, ethics have become the elephant in the courtroom’, The Washington Post, updated October 2, 2023,

3 Also making negative headlines for similar reasons is Justice Samuel Alito, who after revelations that he had taken donations from donors with links to Supreme Court litigation, published a response in the Wall Street Journal: see ‘Durbin, Judiciary Committee Dems Urge Chief Justice to Address Justice Alito’s Wall Street Journal Interview that Violates the Court’s Statement on Ethics’, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary,August 3, 2023,; Ruth Marcus, ‘No Justice Alito. Congress should not butt out on Supreme Court ethics.’, July 30, 2023, see also an opinion piece in the same paper, co-authored by a lawyer in an upcoming case: David B Rivkin Jr and James Taranto, ‘Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court’s Plain-Spoken Defender’, Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2023,; from which Justice Alito has refused to recuse himself: Abbie VanSickle, ‘Justice Alito Rejects Calls for Recusal After Interviews in Wall Street Journal’, New York Times, September 8, 2023,

4 Leon Neyfakh, ‘Slow Burn: Watergate Host’, SlatePodcasts,

5 Leon Neyfak, ‘Slow Burn: The Clinton Impeachment’, Slate Podcasts,

6 Susan Matthews, ‘Slow Burn: Roe v Wade’, Slate Podcasts, 7 Joel Anderson, ‘Slow Burn: Becoming Justice Thomas’, Slate Podcasts,

8 Josh Baker, ‘I’m Not a Monster’, BBC,

9 ‘Case Details: Begum (Respondent) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Appellant)’, The UK Supreme Court,; and the judgment Begum (Respondent) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Appellant) [2021] UKSC 7; and R (Begum) v Special Immigration Appeals Commission [2021] AC 765, In 2023, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission rejected another application from Ms Begum: see Shamima Begum v Home Secretary, Appeal No: SC/163/2019,

10; Judgment Summary at [15];referring to Full Judgment at [219]-[226].

11 See Reg Graycar and Jenny Morgan, The Hidden Gender of Law, The Federation Press, 1990; 2nd edition, 2002.

12 ‘Believed’, NPR,

13 ‘The Catch and Kill Podcast with Ronan Farrow’, Pineapple Street Studios,

14 ‘Jane Doe’, This American Life, May 26, 2023, https://www.thisamericanlife.o...

15 ‘From Serial Productions: the Retrievals’, June 22, 2023, The New York Times,

16 Laura Beil, ‘Exposed: Cover-Up at Columbia University’, Wondery,

17 Bianca Fortis, ProPublica, and Laura Beil, ‘How Columbia Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors and Protected a Predator For More Than 20 Years’, ProPublica and New York Magazine, September 12, 2023,

18 Nia Prater, ‘Columbia Finally Issues an Apology to the Victims of Robert Hadden’, New YorkMagazine, September 20, 2023, The recent developments were widely reported: see for example Colin Moynihan and Harubie Meko, ‘Ex-Gynecologist Who Abused Patients Charged With Luring Them to Office’, The New York Times, January 9, 2023,

19 Rachel Maddow, ‘Ultra’, MSNBC,

20 Rachel Maddow, ‘Deja News’, MSNBC, https://www.

21 Rachel Maddow, ‘Bagman’, MSNC, https://www.

22 Lauren Kilby, ‘Who shat on the floor at my wedding?’,

23 Sophie Fenton, ‘Who shat on the floor at my wedding’, Tortoise Media, July 7, 2023, at-my-wedding/; see also Hannah J Davies, ‘‘We became weirdly obsessed’, how a ‘poodunnit’ podcast about a wedding’s dirty secret went viral’, The Guardian, August 14, 2023,

Reg Graycar

11th Floor St James Hall Chambers