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NPR’s Nina Totenberg Talks Supreme Court

Widely acclaimed broadcast journalist Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio spoke at Eisenhower Auditorium last night as part of the Student Programming Association’s Distinguished Speaker Series. As an expert in legal affairs with years of experience covering the Supreme Court, she spoke about her experiences and observations in her many years as a journalist.

Nina Totenberg is best known for her 1991 coverage of Justice Clarence Thomas’ scandal involving sexual harassment allegations from Anita Hill. She has won countless awards for her years of experience in journalism, including the Peabody Award, Long Island University George Polk Award, Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Joan S. Barone Award. She has also been honored eight times by the American Bar Association for her years of covering legal affairs.

Totenberg began her speech with some humorous anecdotes about the Supreme Court Justices, like how Justice Antonin Scalia blew off his first Long Conference, and how Justice Harry Blackmun saved some unflattering notes from other Justices.

The majority of her speech was centered around recent cases like upholding the Affordable Care Act, and issues that will likely be brought up in the upcoming year, including affirmative action, the Defense of Marriage Act, Citizens United, and the Voting Rights Act. She spoke in depth about each case, explaining the arguments from both sides and predicting the outcome of each case.

Totenberg also spoke about the history of the Supreme Court, and how to current court has moved to the right in recent years. She explained how so-called “judicial activism” is a relatively recent phenomenon, starting with FDR’s judicial appointments in the 1930’s and 40’s. She discussed the role of activism in the Supreme Court, the balance of powers between each branch of government, and how these have changed over the years.

After the speech, the audience participated in a brief Q&A. People asked questions about copyright law, same-sex marriage, and the political motivations of the Justices. Totenberg defended the Justices, arguing that their decisions were based on deep-seeded ideology, and not political motivations.

Nina Totenberg’s speech was an informative eye-opener. She made it clear that she was not just spewing political rhetoric like most reporters — she really knew her stuff. Understanding where she was speaking, she was conscious of her position as a role model for aspiring journalists in the audience, and came off as a level-headed intellectual.

For upcoming lectures from distinguished speakers, check out SPA’s Facebook page and event calendar.

About the Author

Zack Rutstein

Penn State 5th-year Materials Science and Engineering student, Onward State Arts Editor, Musician


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