Nina Totenberg is an American legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio focusing primarily on the activities and politics of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her reports air regularly on NPR's newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition. From 1992 to 2013, she was also a panelist on the syndicated TV political commentary show Inside Washington. Newsweek magazine called her "the creme de la creme" of NPR, and Vanity Fair refers to her as "Queen of the Leaks". She has won many broadcast journalism awards for both her explanatory pieces and her scoops. Among her scoops was her groundbreaking report of sexual harassment allegations made against Clarence Thomas by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, leading the Senate Judiciary Committee to re-open Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Previously, in 1986, she broke the story that Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg had smoked marijuana, leading Ginsburg to withdraw his name. And in 1977, she reported on secret Supreme Court deliberations relating to the Watergate scandal.
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EDIT: Thanks everyone, for all your questions. Until next time, ....Nina
I have covered the legal beat, politics, national events, for.....well, let's just say....decades. I was a print reporter before coming to NPR, and while at NPR have also done a fair amount of television, including a current events panel show, Inside Washington, for 21 years. I love my work, and my family. I am married to Dr. H. David Reines, vice chairman of surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital. I have two wonderful and very accomplished sisters--Amy, a federal judge, and Jill, president of the Totenberggroup, a strategic PR company. My late father, Roman Totenberg, was a world renowned violinist, and my late mother Melanie, was a locally renowned real estate broker in the Boston area.
Here are some of my recent pieces:
[How Does Destroying Fish Compare To Shredding Documents, Legally?]
And here are some others I like.
And a nice scoop: Justice Dept. Seeks To Void Stevens' Conviction
I'm a huge fan of your work. In fact, I can't read any SC reports without hearing your voice reading the parts of the Justices in my head.
Are you and your team planning on doing anything with John Oliver's doggy Supreme Court footage? I'd honestly rather have your voice over those dogs than the actual audio.
I loved your work on 2776. Have you had much vocal training? Is it a hobby of yours?
uh, I have no team. It's just me, and an intern. And aside from laughing my head off, I am not doing anything on John Oliver.
No vocal training. I am blessed with a big, somewhat operatic voice, but that is God's hand, not mine. My father, see above, always told me that his father had a beautiful singing voice.
Hi Nina! I love listening to your SC reports!
My question is: Many years ago as part of the annual NPR fundraiser, they were sharing anecdotes on air of the dedicated journalism of NPR reporters. The broadcasters mentioned a time when you were investigating a story and were in a meeting or courtroom (I cannot recall) and you were asked to leave. But before you left the room, you loudly announced your name and contact number for anyone who wanted to reach you to talk to you about what was transpiring.
What was that all about? And if I may ask another, what is the most 'extreme' thing you've done to get a quote?
it was a civil rights division meeting early in the Reagan Administration, when longstanding policies were being reversed. So I just went. Of course, one of the bosses recognized me and asked me, unceremoniously, to leave. So, I did what you describe below, asked for volunteers to call me to tell me what happened in the meeting.
Nina, have you ever heard Thomas speaking, ever?
he used to ask the occasional question, though no longer. And he does give speeches.
I'm a huge fan of your work and I'm beginning my career as a legal journalist myself. I recently graduated from college and got a job at a "legal news for lawyers" publication.
I really enjoy reading legal briefs and working with legal arguments. But I find that both my sources and my superiors sometimes don't take me seriously. They don't seem to believe that a young woman with no formal legal training can possibly make sense of these matters, and they often think I don't know what I'm talking about. They can be very condescending, often re-explaining simple things to me or telling me that the stories I pitch are too difficult for me to understand.
I know that you began reporting on legal matters from a young age. How did you get people to take you seriously? How did you get them to respect your understanding?
I just worked hard, and eventually they would see my reporting and, believe it or not, just assume I was a lawyer. Many times, folks have been surprised to learn I am not. I suggest when someone starts explaining something you know already, just say, " I understand all that, my question is ......"
How has the SCOTUS changed over the past 20 years and how is it the same?
the biggest change is that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan conservative with a centrist bent, has been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush appointee, who is a movement conservative. That means that the court has moved in a dramatically more conservative direction--witness Alito's decision last term in the Hobby Lobby case, ruling for the first time ever that some for-profit corporations may be exempt, on religious grounds, from a generally applicable federal law.
Thank you so much for doing this AMA. The Supreme Court only releases audio recordings of Oral Arguments, do you feel that this is the best way for the Supreme Court to share the cases with the American people? Do you think having video recordings would change anything related to public perception of cases or would that be irrelevant?
I have noticed from questions submitted earlier that there is a misunderstanding about the way audio is released. It posted online on Friday afternoon of every argument week, not on the same day as arguments take place. There are rare exceptions, i.e., the same sex marriage arguments, Obamacare, where the audio is released when the argument is over. But on a normal day, we do not get audio, though we now do get an unofficial transcript in the afternoon, so I am able to check my notes against that. Until quite recently, there was no way to check, so we reporters used to gather in the press room afterwards to see who got what precisely, and then we just agreed, that was the quote.
Silly question i know, but has there ever been a politician, or some other high status individual that actually knew who you were before you even formally met? how great and/or accomplished did it make you feel? thanks for doing this.
We have lots of listeners, including pols. Early in then Sen. Obama's Senate tenure, I got an elevator with him, and he was incredibly nice about my legal coverage. It was the one and only time I met him!
How did you get roped into the pill-swallowing technique feature? Is there a literal water cooler where interns can rope NPR vets into new media pieces?
they asked me, and others. The fact that they used my video suggests to me that I am an ace pill swallower!
Nina, love your stuff. Follow you on twitter couple of questions:
Favorite Experience with Justice Ginsburg?
What do you think about the credentialing issue with SCOTUS Blog?
I think it is a disgrace that Scotusblog is not credentialed!
What's a quirky fact that people are surprised to find out about the Supreme Court (could be about specific justices or the court as a whole)?
Justice Kennedy gets to the Court very very early in the morning, and if court is not sitting, he is getting ready to leave when Justice Ginsburg arrives. She often works until 3 or 4 in the morning, then comes into the court in the afternoon.
Hi Nina, thanks for doing this!
Is it difficult to balance having a good relationship with your sources and staying objective? I'm in journalism, too--I would imagine that if you talk to a certain person all the time, you get friendly with them, but you still have to be hard on them. Is that something you find easy now?
There is a difference between personal friendship and covering an institution. It sort of is what it is. You can't trim your professional sails just because you know and like a justice, for example. You have to report as objectively and interestingly as possible. Sometimes that means you end up writing unflattering things, and sometimes, flattering ones. The one exception to this rule, I must note, is that when I met my late husband, he was a U.S. senator, and I got nowhere near anything he did.
Should cert granted on the King (ACA) case scare proponents of the law? A purely textualist reading of the statute leads me to believe the government wins, but the cert grant has me wondering if textualism can be reduced to one sentence in 900 pages of statute.
As in every case like this, there are decent arguments on both sides, but here the Court reached out to grant this case in a manner that is contrary to its usual practice, and with no conflict in the lower courts. So, supporters of the law are justifiably worried.
Ms. Totenberg: I feel as if dissents are often considerably more sloppily and divisively written than majority opinions.Do you think such dissents are sometimes more honest explanations of how those Justices really feel (but would be hesitant putting into law as a majority)?
Have you ever noticed a Justice being in the dissent in one case, and then having the opportunity to write that opinion into a majority opinion some years later and realizing they need to tone down the rhetoric now that it's something lower courts need to follow?
The reason justices "tone it down" is that they have to keep a majority of five, and that is often very difficult.
Do you have to practice that "NPR voice" that everyone on NPR seems to have?
my voice is my voice. period.
Do you and the justices ever go to the same parties? How common is it to see them in social setting these days?
fairly common. I see several of them at the opera, or the ballet, etc. and at big legal events, at the Library of Congress, for instance.
I was just looking at your Wikipedia page, and saw that your husband, a trauma surgeon, treated you for injuries on your honeymoon after you were hit by a boat propeller. I live on the water, and being hit by a boat propeller is one of my biggest fears. No question relating to that, but it may be the most romantic thing I've read. A man who can save you from a boat propeller is my kind of man!
As for questions, I've read that you left college after three years, and never finished your degree. As someone who struggled in college (and is still paying for those years I spent struggling), I'm wondering -- what purpose do you think college should serve? Is there a right way to do it? And inside or outside of a traditional academic setting, what are some of the best ways to get an education?
He is my kind of man too!!!! As to college, it very much depends on what you want to do with your life. As it happens, reporters are at least partly anarchists, so many of them do not have college degrees. It is not, however, a course I would recommend.
I want to say thank you. Your work is fantastic and incredibly appreciated.
I was wondering if there is any certain piece you've written over the years that has been your favorite or, if not, what SCOTUS decision was the most interesting for you to cover?
around the time of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I did a three part series for ATC on how the case was decided, based on the notes of the justices, which by then were available, and interviews with all the living law clerks who had worked on the decision. I really like the way it turned out and think it is very revealing on the times and how the decision evolved.
Hi Nina! I have a Nina Totin' Bag, which is about the coolest thing I own, but it'd be so much cooler if it didn't say "The Nina Totin' Bag" on it. Can you work on that?
not in my job description.
Has not being a lawyer been an advantage or disadvantage as a legal affairs reporter?
In the long run, it probably is an advantage, since I am writing and reporting for people who, for the most part, are not lawyers. The trick is to write for them, but in a way that tells lawyers something important too.
What was it like doing Inside Washington for 21 years?
It was enormous fun. The guys became very good friends, including Charles Krauthammer. When my late husband was very ill, they all pitched in enormously to keep my spirits up, and when I started dating David, Gorden Peterson and his wife Ann gave a party, the purpose of which was to get a look at the new guy!!!
You've been with NPR long enough to have been a part of the huge move to the internet. Do you think that it has made your job as a journalist better or just more complicated?
more complicated. Yes, I can check facts more quickly, but I now have to file on multiple platforms. It seems the day is never over now, in terms of how often and for how many venues we file. The consequence is that it is harder to really focus and think about a story.
The family can't listen to anything legal without hearing your voice. Take THAT law and order!
Is it possible that the Citizens' United decision has any unintended consequences you may not have covered?
How well do you get to know any of the SCOTUS? If you have, could you classify any of them as strictly apolitical in their approaches? I suppose it could be without knowing them, but I've always wondered what their political voice is like.
Obviously, Supreme Court justices have political opinions, but I guarantee you that none of them thinks he or she makes rulings based on those views. What is more likely these days is that judicial ideology matches politics. I do think that Republican presidents of late have had a very strong, and conservative view of what kind of justice they want. Now, they don't always get what they want--example, Justice Souter. Democratic presidents have wanted somewhat liberal justices, but they have a less all-encompassing idea of what they want. Indeed, if you read President Obama's second book, he makes clear that he does not want the courts deciding a whole bunch of issues; rather, his view is that those things should be determined by the elected political branches.
As a paralegal, you're my favorite NPR personality by far.
What do you think of the recent issue of judicial elections being swayed with outside campaign donations? Do you think it will result in rulings being influenced?
Although I know that appointing judges can have its problems, I think electing them really is a system waiting for scandal. Judges, after all, are human beings, and if they are always worrying about how a decision will look in a 30 second ad, that is a very big problem for justice.
What do you think about the SCOTUS practice of not highlighting changes made to opinions between slip and final publication? Don't we deserve an explicit heads-up when something has been modified?
You got the first such heads up from Justice Ginsburg a short while ago. I suspect others will do likewise, but the truth is that these really are small changes in opinions. You really aren't missing all that much if you don't know; besides which, if the justices don't fess up, the academic bloggers will tell you about it; indeed, that is often how the justices find out they goofed.
I love your play-by-plays of Supreme Court cases. How long does it take you to prepare those? You seem to do them so quickly afterward, but you manage to distill out the most important parts!
I never really know what's going on until I hear your report! Thank you for that!
I typically have about 2 hours to do those, if I allow myself a few minutes to check e mail and have a cup of coffee and cookie for lunch.
How aware do you believe the Chief Justice is to the legacy of his Court? Justices, of course, usually say they just decide on the merits. However, he did mention the other day of being bothered by the "partisan Court" rumors.
all the justices hate the notion that they might have partisan motives, and as I said, I don't think they do. They do have strong views on how to interpret the law and the constitution.
Thank you so much for doing the AmA, you're a personal NPR favorite of mine.
I was curious about your early work history, so quick question: when the former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter to National Observer's then editor demanding your termination, did you know the editor would print the letter in the Observer along with a rebuttal of Hoover's complaints regarding your article? Were you and the editor "co-conspirators" in this rebuttal?
The editor told me that he planned to publish both letters.
Nina, what is the funniest or oddest thing you've ever witnessed during a Supreme Court session?
Thank you for making all that legal mumbo jumbo fun!
I am not good at ever. But the funniest day recently was the day the clocks were literally spinning in the courtroom (it was the time change day) and Justice Breyer, upon ascending the bench, almost say in Justice Sotomayor's chair. She caught him in time.
As a woman entering a male dominated field myself, I'd like to know:
1) How has gender affected your career, especially as you got older?
2) Do you have any advice for individuals entering professional fields where they are underrepresented?
It was a lot harder when I started out and there were no other women everywhere I worked. NPR was the first place where there were lots of women, and it was largely because NPR paid so little back then. Women were the only people willing to work for that money, and management got, forgive the expression, more bang for its bucks.
What kind of music do you listen to?
What is your opinion on parents taking their children to metal concerts and moshing with them?
What investments do you currently have in your portfolio?
Why do you suppose California is a better state than the other 49 states combined?
Do you think it would be political suicide if a particular Senator from Kansas were to come out of the closet?
I love classical music and music I can dance to, swing, 50s, 60s, 70s rock 'n roll. Hate concerts where I can't sit down.
Nina, big fan here. My question is whether you believe the recent spate of injunctive rulings by the Court regarding state same-sex marriage laws is an indication the Court plans to take up the Equal Protection issue in the next term(s). If so, do you believe the reversal of Judge Friedman out of the Sixth Circuit will be the case they take? Thanks! -Law student from Michigan.
With a conflict now existing among the courts of appeal, I expect the Court will hear a same sex marriage case this term.
Hi Ms. Totenberg. Just wanted to ask, do you listen to NPR in your free time? If not, where do you choose to get your news?
I DO listen to NPR. Even have a radio in the shower! I also read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and sometimes the Wall Street Journal.
Hi Nina! I love your work!
I imagine that as Obama considers Executive Action on immigration, that one of the primary things that his team looks at is the legal angle - "can we legally do this?"
A couple of questions:
1. Do you have a personal and/or professional opinion on this? Is it legal?
2. If(when) he goes ahead with Executive Action on it, do you expect that it could ultimately end up in front of the Supreme Court to determine it's legality?
I guarantee you that the Administration has vetted whatever action he is contemplating, and believes it will withstand court challenge. That does not mean it will, but there are a great many legal hurdles that the challengers would have to clear before being successful.
Your reporting is great. I find you tend to add huge emphasis to words that laymen might not think of as significant (parts of the test being applied, for instance). Do you have Oyez access when recording, and choose not to use it so that you can add that emphasis?
I'd also love to hear your thoughts on broader media coverage of the courts. I find in my practice that people only focus on the end result of SCOTUS decisions, ignoring the procedural issues entirely. For instance, lots of people seem to think that when SCOTUS denies cert in an appeal of a gay marriage case, that's a vote that banning gay marriage is now unconstitutional.
You are correct. It is not a vote on the merits, but when the Court lets stand this many lower court decisions, with result that tens of thousands of gay marriages will take place, it is also true that it seems to be sending a signal. If there had been five votes to stop that result,....well, you get my drift.
Hi Nina. Thanks for your hard work. Your segments always seem cogent and well prepared.
How do you feel about the structure of life appointments for the supreme court? Would you support term limits at all?
No. I trust the founding fathers on this one, and most other things too.
Hi Nina, I was one of your father's violin students a few years back, and now I'm considering a career in Washington.
Sometimes when I speak to politicians and policymakers as a college student there's a differential between what they expect me to know and not know, and my own expectations about how much they are willing to disclose about what they do to someone of my stature. As someone who isn't in politics or the legal profession in a formal sense, what is your secret to making and maintaining deep, professional contacts the way you do, especially when you were just starting out?
just get to know as many people as you can. treat them with respect, and most of the time, they will treat you similarly, if you know your stuff and ask good questions. When I first met Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was a young, in her 30s law professor. Who knew then what would become of her!
Hi, thanks for doing this! Unfortunately, every time I hear you on my radio talking about the supreme court's actions, my blood pressure rises in a hurry. How do you stay sane and levelheaded while in the middle of such insanity?
Look, my job is to cover the news. And a great story is a great story!
Do you like the show The Newsroom? On a scale of 1 to Sarin, how scandalous is your work, really?
I liked it, though it had a definite political perspective. It did capture some of the difficulties of modern journalism.
You do such an amazing job of channeling the various justices and make me really feel like I'm sitting in one of the benches in the court room. Do you spend a lot of time practicing the story before you go on air or does it just come naturally at this point? Also you seem to have a specific tone of voice for each justice to the point that I can tell who you are speaking for even if I tune in midway into the piece. Is that on purpose and if so how do you come up with a new "voice" for each of the justices?
Thanks for all your hard work, I always love and look forward to hearing your pieces on my way home from work.
If I do that, it certainly is not conscious.
I love your voice! I've been listening to NPR for years, and it's always nice to hear you speak.
My question: what is your favorite NPR program, aside from the ones you are involved with? When you're listening, what do you like to tune in for?
I do really love our news magazines. Next, I love Wait Wait, Don't Tell me, This American Life, and Car Talk.
Hello Nina (if I may),
Will you or would you consider writing a book about your experience as a SCOTUS reporter, perhaps giving opinions and insights that you do not feel comfortable giving as an active reporter?
I am a deadline dick. I have turned down all offers to write a book, so far. And I see no reason to change my mind.
How did you happen to stumble upon what you do? Was it a passion first or did it develop into one? Same for your husband, if you know?
Once I realized I couldn't be Nancy Drew, I had to come up with a profession that was close.
Hi Nina, thanks for consistently being my favorite part of NPR, which is quite a compliment!
My question has to do with the future of SCOTUS. Do you see Ruth Bader Ginsburg retiring during the Obama administration and, if so, who do you see replacing her? Do you think it will be Eric Holder, or perhaps someone with more of a judicial background?
As long as she remains healthy, I do not see her retiring during the Obama Administration, and no matter what, I do not think Eric Holder is a contender to replace her. The GOP senate would never confirm him.
Do you too speak in a soft, calming voice?
Hi Nina; I always look forward to your reports during the season of Supreme Court's Rulings.
Which justices, current or historical, would you want to hang out with socially? (Have you ever?)
Do you have a better Cranberry Relish or other holiday recipe than Susan Stamberg?
Yes, but mine's a secret.