NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg gave the Supreme Court justices a human quality on March 16 in the Carolina Theater in Greensboro, N.C., delivering the keynote address that ended the state’s annual Sunshine Day, which aims to recognize openness in government and to honor those who work to promote transparency.
Totenberg focused much of her talk on the Supreme Court, referring to it as a responsible institution that has an important and indelible impact on the lives of all American citizens.
“Folks who are charged with responsibility do almost all of the heavy lifting,” she said. “And they make decisions all of us live with for better or for worse.”
While these justices make decisions that affect all of the public, Totenberg also said they are continue to be kept out of the public eye. Totenberg said Supreme Court justices are the only important people in American democracy who are not in a security cocoon. In fact, she said, justices can go to grocery stories or movies without security escorts.
Totenberg has been covering the courts since 1975, and the American Bar Association has honored Totenberg eight times for excellence in legal reporting. She is also the only journalist who has won the National Press Foundation award for Broadcaster of the Year, according to the NPR Web site.
She said to cover the high court she uses a microphone already in place in the Supreme Court that goes direct to NPR airwaves. She said she will go from taking notes at a floor meeting to the microphone and record her story.
“I’ll try to sketch out a little of the human and the consequence,” Totenberg said.
Totenberg said the beat is difficult. When a broadcast journalist is sent to the c ourt for the day to cover the cases, it is a prescription for mistakes.
“You have to know the players, the rules and the procedures,” she said.
Elon University Communications professor Anthony Hatcher asked Totenbergy if there were many regular legal reporters. Totenberg said there are 15-20 reporters who cover the courts consistently. There are wire services, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, television networks, NBC, Slate and trade and legal publications, she said.
But Totenberg said she can’t help but feel that the judicial climate today is polarized, as is the entire political process. But she said she believes change is in the air. In the last five years there have been three new justices. And there will likely be more spaces to fill, she said.
“What we’re seeing today is the flip side for the (Earl) Warren court era, which was argued it was too liberal,” Totenberg said.
Currently, Totenberg said there are 125 judicial vacancies, according to Totenberg, but that’s too exorbitant and amount.
Totenberg said President Barack Obama’s administration has been slow to make nominations compared to the Bush administration. She said Obama has nominated 53 judges compared to Bush’s 91 at the same time last year.
Totenberg also addressed the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to allow cameras inside the courtroom.
Totenberg said the only currency the court has is the honor and respect people have for it. She said upholding this honor is more important than providing television access to court proceedings.
Totenberg said she once ranted to Archibald Cox, a lawyer and U.S. Solicitor General under President John F. Kennedy, about the lack of access the public had to the court.
She said Cox told her: “Once you bring down the level of the court to entertainment value, the authority is undermined.”