Nina Totenberg October 20, 2016
Nina Totenberg is NPR’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent and was once called the “crème de la crème” of National Public Radio. She has won every major journalism award in broadcasting, and is the only radio journalist to have won the National Press Foundation award for Broadcaster of the Year.
She spoke with SCOTUSDaily in September about her tenure covering the Supreme Court, the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, and her “Holy —!” moments covering the court.
How long have you been covering the Supreme Court?
I hate to tell you that it’s over 40 years—let’s put it that way.
How has covering the court changed in that time?
For me it’s changed enormously. I now have to focus much more intensively on the court than I once did. I once would do a lot of court stories and keep my eye on the ball all the time, but I didn’t have to do one every other minute for every stay that was granted or not granted, for every peculiarity that happened or didn’t happen. I only had to worry about the big cases and cover those. Now, having said that, there were twice as many cases that the court heard every year.
It’s also very different from when I first started covering the court when there were no transcripts available, there was no audio that you even knew of. Justices gave very few speeches—that we knew of anyway. It was a big deal if you got an interview with a justice. They didn’t give them, ever!
Isn’t it still a big deal?
It’s a pretty good deal. It’s not the same.
You know, because justices write books now. They didn’t write books then. They write books, they’re promoting the books, they give you an interview, you ask whatever you can, and they tell you as little as they can. But at least you have a shot.
Why do you think following the Supreme Court matters? Why do you think we should care?
Because it really does have an enormous effect on our lives, either directly or indirectly. And, in many ways that seems less obvious than obvious.
If you take a case where the police can stop and search you, and under what circumstances, that may matter enormously to you or your kid. Or what kind of force is considered unjustified force. Or whether you have the right to sue under the civil rights laws or can be forced into arbitration. Those are all kind of technical sounding, but they matter an enormous amount to people, and it’s my job to explain to them why it should matter.
This is the third branch of government. And while members of Congress are popping off every day, and the President is popping off almost every day, and candidates for the White House are popping off almost every day, members of the Supreme Court do not. And they have just as much an effect on people’s lives. And so it’s my job to explain why and how in individual cases—and to make it interesting enough that people will stop and listen.
Is there a need to reform the court? Do you have any opinion on term limits? Or cameras in the courtroom?
Talking about term limits is really just gnashing your gums together, it’s not going to go anywhere. I really don’t pay any attention to it whatsoever. It’s always the people who have lost lately who want to have term limits.
As far as cameras in the courtroom, I doubt very much that we’ll live to see the day that it happens because there is quite a big difference between those who publicly say it’s a good idea and those who privately say it’s a good idea. And that includes a lot of reporters.
But anybody who really wants to hear an argument—hear an argument, not see it, but hear it—can hear it. Just go to the Supreme Court website on Friday afternoon, and it’s there to be heard.
Now, why that same rationale does not apply to the announcement of opinions? I have never heard a good answer.
What should we be most closely tracking?
Whether or not Merrick Garland gets confirmed.
What are your predictions for Judge Garland?
I’m not really sure that Mitch McConnell will allow a vote on him, even after the election and even if Hillary Clinton wins.
Then, the question is whether she re-nominates him, or she picks somebody else. In either event, we’re unlikely to have someone on the court for the rest of this term for all practical purposes. Even if she re-nominated him, he would not be confirmed at the earliest until late March which would allow him to sit on the court and hear arguments in the last grouping of cases, and that’s it. So that would be two terms, almost two terms, of waiting for that ninth justice.
What has been your most memorable moment covering the Supreme Court?
I guess there were decisions I didn’t expect. Those are always the moments that you go, “Holy —!” I think your most memorable times are the very dramatic moments in court when you, the reporter, are very surprised.
Editor’s note: Fix the Court and its project Come to Terms are non-partisan and have no political motivation for its pro-term limits platform.