Totenberg receives Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism

Totenberg receives Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism

URBANA — Nina Totenberg has more Supreme Court experience than any of the sitting justices, and the court's makeup and caseload has changed dramatically during her tenure.

Totenberg, veteran legal affairs reporter for National Public Radio, has covered every major Supreme Court case since she took the beat in 1968, from civil rights struggles to Watergate to Bush v. Gore to Citizens United.

In that time, a court known for unanimous or 7-1 decisions has become much deeply divided, civil rights cases have been turned on their heads, and rulings on obscenity and anti-war protests have given way to arguments over technology, privacy and gay rights, Totenberg told a packed crowd at the Beckman Institute Auditorium on Monday.

"It may be that it is far more polarized than at any time in recent memory," she said. "But then, so is the country."

Totenberg was visiting campus after receiving the Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism from the University of Illinois Department of Journalism.

Department head Rich Martin said Totenberg exemplifies the goal of the prize — to honor journalists who present clear, factual and ethical reporting — and gives Supreme Court decisions a meaningful context for the public.

Totenberg said the court had one Catholic, one Jew, one African-American, seven Protestants and no women back in 1968. Now, there are six Catholics, three Jews, one African-American, three women and no Protestants.

The court that once included former elected officials, political appointees and the nation's leading civil rights attorney now is almost exclusively a bench of former federal prosecutors.

The political climate has also changed, Totenberg said.

The biggest decision back in 1968 was Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court ruled 7-2 that public school students have a First Amendment right to express themselves by wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.

Five years ago, the court upheld a 10-day suspension for a student who unfurled a "Bong hits for Jesus" banner during an Olympic torch parade, which students had been excused from school to watch.

In 1968, students were worried about the draft, and the Vietnam War was at its height. Today, the nation has been at war for 10 years but there's no draft, and the court's decisions involve treatment of terror suspects and drone attacks, she said.

All but one of the court's civil rights decisions in 1968 were unanimous, she noted.

More recently the court has been in relative agreement on some cases — ruling 8-1 against the government's right to detain American citizens without charge and upholding 6-3 the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detention, she said.

But more often it is divided 5-4, she said.

Totenberg was sent to Mississippi in 1968 when the Supreme Court ordered schools there desegregated "without delay." She went to Philadelphia, where three civil rights workers had been killed, and immediately was threatened by a police official who was a suspect in the murders. By nightfall, her car was being tailed by three "rough" men in a truck.

Several years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the 1965 Voting Rights Act, widely viewed as the most important civil rights legislation of the last century, she said. But the justices were "clearly unenthusiastic," suggesting Congress take another look. Congress didn't, the issue is back before the justices, and speculation is they will strike down a key provision of the act, she said.

Whites also now claim that their rights are being abridged by the civil rights remedies put in place four decades ago, she said. The court this term may rewrite the higher education affirmative action decision written just 10 years ago.

Totenberg said the country has made unimagined progress on civil rights since she started covering the court. Homosexuals weren't discussed and gay rights didn't exist, let alone gay marriage. Justice Lewis Powell once told a colleague that he had never met a homosexual — even though one of his clerks was gay, she said.

Fast forward several decades, Totenberg said, to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sending a baby gift to a former law clerk who was a lesbian.

An entire category of cases has disappeared from the court's docket: obscenity. Those took up quite a bit of the court's time back in the day, Totenberg said, with a screening room set up in the basement where justices and clerks could watch the material in question. Justice John Harlan, who was almost completely blind, "dutifully attended" while another justice narrated the action, she said.

Totenberg included other anecdotes about the "sheer normalness" of the justices, including the time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell off her chair while trying to recover an errant shoe. She is grateful to former Justice Harry Blackmun for saving his collection of bench notes, including one that read, "Note the blonde in the second row" and another in which O'Connor complained that Blackmun's hearing aid was emitting a loud noise.

Totenberg's favorite is the one sent in by law clerks during the 1973 baseball playoffs: "Vice President Agnew resigned. Mets 2, Reds 0."

Totenberg lived in Champaign-Urbana in 1960 while her father, a violinist from New York, was a visiting professor. She was a junior in high school but hung out at the Illini Union and signed up as a Freedom Rider "until my mother found out."

She also campaigned for then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, attending his speech on the UI Quad, and said Theodore White's book on the 1960 presidential race convinced her to be a reporter "to be a witness to history rather than a participant."