Nina Totenberg shares wisdom, jokes from decades of covering U.S. Supreme Court

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | 11:01 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — For almost 40 years, Nina Totenberg has covered a U.S. Supreme Court full of characters including a "pack-rat" and two "charming and beguiling" humorists, as she described them.

Former Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, who served on the Supreme Court from 1970 to 1994, earned the designation of a hoarding rodent by preserving not only his official papers but also the personal notes passed between himself and the other justices with whom he served on the bench.

One note addressed to Blackmun encouraged him to stay awake in court on a day when he had been up late the previous night, Totenberg said. Another kindly requested that he have his squealing hearing aid adjusted.

The jokers are Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and former Associate Justice William Brennan Jr. — but Scalia is funnier, Totenberg said.

It was with these anecdotes that Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for NPR, began her talk, "The Supreme Court and Its Impact on You," about trends she has witnessed in her time covering the court. Columbia College hosted Totenburg on Wednesday night as a part of its Althea W. and John A. Schiffman Ethics in Society Lecture series.

One common misconception about the Supreme Court is that it is clearly divided along liberal and conservative lines, Totenberg said. Although the court is divided, it is ideology that the justices differ on, not politics. Partisan politics play no role in the deliberation of the judges, she said.

Nevertheless, Totenberg described a Supreme Court that leans hard to the right and is more conservative than the liberal activist court of a few decades ago.

Totenberg also said she has witnessed increasing disagreement over what is constitutional. Fifty years ago, what the government could do was agreed upon, though people disagreed over what the government should do, Totenberg said. Now, however, it is unclear what the government can do constitutionally.

Although the court has become much more accessible to the public, Totenberg said she would hate to see it become entertainment. Not being on television all the time is what enables the judges to do their job, she said.

"They should be able to buy their own tomatoes and stand in line with the rest of us," Totenberg said. Although very smart, the justices are still just people, she said.

Totenberg has won multiple major broadcasting awards, including the National Press Foundation's Broadcaster of the Year in 1999. She is the only radio journalist to receive this award.

By sharing her knowledge at her talk, Totenberg said she hoped people would get a better understanding of how the Supreme Court functions.

"I hope to provoke you a bit and, I hope, make you think," she said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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