INSIDE Chico State
0 February 22, 2001
Volume 31 Number 11
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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NPR's Supreme Nina

Ernst Schoen–René, Department of English, Outstanding Academic Adviser, 2000–2001
Nina Totenberg, legal commentator for National Public Radio

(Photo by Zu Vincent)

Nina Totenberg's staid brilliance shone during a personal appearance at Chico's Elk's Lodge last week. Precise and authoritative, fresh from her honeymoon and a boating accident, National Public Radio's legal commentator treated the packed audience to an insider's look at the Supreme Court's recent decision on the 2000 election, threading her way through both its rationale and future ramifications.

Totenberg, who appeared in conjunction with a February 8 fund-raiser sponsored by CSU, Chico's College of Communication and Education and KCHO Radio, has long been an important voice on National Public Radio (NPR). As Newsweek put it, she's the "créme de la créme" commentator for All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. She's also a correspondent for ABC's Nightline and a regular panelist on Inside Washington.

Honored eight times by the American Bar Association for excellence in legal reporting, Totenberg has won countless other prestigious awards, including recognition for her reporting on such important events as Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas, and Justice Thurgood Marshall's retirement.

She was a Washington reporter and editor long before she joined NPR in 1975, and her years in Washington have developed her keen political eye. Totenberg remembers that in the "old days," people would say of her job covering the Supreme Court, "Then you don't do politics."

Today, things have changed. And while Totenberg was firm in her belief that the court's decision in the 2000 election wasn't partisan, she does feel that partisan politics has definitely entered the arena.

The Supreme Court is not as "bitterly divided" as recent

reports indicate, she said. Gallop Polls do show a shift in who has confidence in the court these days -- notably Democrats do not.

"Are the Democrats mad?" she asked. "You bet they are!"

While past court decisions may have been highly controversial, neither the court's esteem nor its political motives have come into question in quite this way. It's a shift which shows that "something is wrong," said Totenberg. "The court should be separate from the political process."

What has happened to change this? "Until Reagan, there was the idea presidents wanted qualified people," Totenberg said. "Each president would care about one thing—such as Kennedy and civil rights. It was understood no nominee was going to stick with the view of the nominating president."

Now judges are carefully screened for all their judicial philosophies, in a "secret" process heretofore unheard of -- a process President Bush faces with the probable court vacancies in the near future.

The president will have to decide, said Totenberg, just how much he wants to push his choice of nominees. The recent battle over Ashcroft's nomination to the cabinet, she added, was a dry run for liberal groups.

"For the first time in 30 years," she explained, "there's already talk of a threatened filibuster on a Supreme Court nomination. "I think Bush made a mistake when he bowed to the right on Ashcroft. He miscalculated, and it will be costly in public relations."

"We're in for some fights," predicted Totenberg, adding that a real possibility with a conservative change in the judiciary would be the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

The Supreme Court is supposed to be responsible to the people and independent,"she noted, "but for the last 10 to 15 years it's become more and more embroiled in politics."

So what was the 2000 election decision, then, if not partisan? Simply a move, Totenberg said, to save the country. "It's not a liberal or conservative decision," she said. "Really, it's not nothin'!"

Nothing save a move to avoid having the issue continue through December, with a fight in the House of Representatives. "That would have torn the country significantly."

Yet, if her predictions come true, the country will be facing many heart-wrenching legal issues anyway. If so, Totenberg says with a savvy smile, "I'll have lots of interesting stuff to report on."

Zu Vincent
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