Senior NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg did not begin her 50-year career in broadcast journalism thinking she would cover the Supreme Court. But in the early 1970s, Totenberg, then with the National Observer, was assigned to cover the highest court in the land and she has been the go-to source for goings-on at SCOTUS ever since.
I had the honor of meeting Ms. Totenberg Tuesday, September 20, 2016, when she visited UNC for the annual Frey Foundation Distinguished Lecture. She regaled the capacity crowd in Memorial Hall with tales from her decades of dogged reporting. She recalled meeting a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg — whom she called “the female Thurgood Marshall” — and following her rise to seniority and influence on the Court.
Guided by UNC School of Law professor Michael Gerhardt’s incisive questions, Totenberg described in vibrant and poignant terms how politics influence the Court’s composition. She critiqued both Democrat and Republican attempts to tip the balance of the Court along political, ideological lines, citing the failed confirmation of Robert Bork and the controversy surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.
Following the lecture, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, and administrators, faculty and students from the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Media and Journalism, and the School of Law joined Totenberg for dinner and conversation. Dinner offered us an intimate look into the public and personal lives of the justices through Totenberg’s eyes. At dinner, Totenberg’s stories took on additional life. She described in heartfelt anecdotes the occasionally fiery but always collegial relationship between Justice Ginsberg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom she affectionately called “Nino.” The guests appeared to hang on Totenberg’s every word, relishing the opportunity to learn from the most seasoned legal correspondent to ever cover the Court.