Higher education

NPR's Totenberg reflects on how Supreme Court has changed with times

The legal affairs correspondent has covered court longer than any justice has served on it

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg speaks Wednesday night at the University of Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg speaks Wednesday night at the University of Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City

IOWA CITY — Nina Totenberg has covered the Supreme Court of the United States longer than any sitting justice has served on it.

“Many are in fact older than I am, but I have been covering longer than they’ve been on it,” she said Wednesday night to a crowded room at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Memorial Union.

During the hourlong lecture, Totenberg — National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent — talked about how the court has changed in ideology and makeup during her tenure.

There are more women serving and fewer Protestants, she said. And while several elected officials sat on the bench when her career first started, these days, all but one — Justice Elena Kagan — previously were federal judges.

Totenberg has reported on major decisions from Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District — a major First Amendment win for students — to Citizens United v Federal Elections Committee, which said political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

But the court has changed as the country has changed, she said. There are more cases about technology — regarding patents and telling police they can’t search a cellphone without a warrant — and social issues have evolved.

“Some issues were never even discussed,” she said, like those regarding gay rights. “Every justice would have thought a colleague was crazy if they had suggested (same-sex marriage) — fast forward to 2014, and the Supreme Court makes same-sex unions legal in every state in the union.”


Totenberg believes the justices’ opinions are far more predictable these days, thanks to a deeply divided court. That’s due in part to the appointment of more hard-line Republican justices, she said.

For instance, when President Gerald Ford appointed Justice John Paul Stevens in 1975, he was considered a moderate centrist. By 2010, when he retired, he was one of the most liberal on the court, she said.

“That’s in part reflective of the era we live in,” she said.

She pointed out that there are four justices over 76 — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer — which means whoever is elected as the next president could name as many as four new justices. This could drastically change the makeup the court and its decisions.

“If there is a vacancy, hold onto your hats, it will be a bumpy ride,” she said.


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