Nina Totenberg On Her Career, Vermont In The 1970s And Graduation Speeches

May 14, 2015

Nina Totenberg has been NPR’s legal affairs correspondent for almost 40 years. And even if you don’t follow the courts or the law, you’ve probably found yourself enjoying Totenberg’s reenactments of Supreme Court justices making the lawyers before them squirm.

Totenberg has a connection to Vermont, and will be speaking at the University of Vermont’s commencement ceremony on May 17. She joined Vermont Edition to talk about the recent cases facing the Supreme Court, her career and a funny story about how her husband met Sen. Patrick Leahy.

On the campaign finance regulation issue facing the Supreme Court

“Well, you know, it’s a pretty conservative court, and we know what five members of the court think about campaign finance regulations for the most part. And certainly limits on independent spending and that sort of thing they’ve completely eviscerated,” says Totenberg. “And the … five-justice majority believes very strongly that money is speech and the four in the minority believe that money is not speech – and there you have it. And until the composition of the court changes, or a constitutional amendment is enacted, I’m afraid that’s where we are.”

On the issue of same-sex marriage facing the Supreme Court

“Again, the court looks like it’s divided 5-4, and I don’t actually think we’re going to know how this is going to turn out until the end of June when it decides the same-sex marriage cases that are pending before it right now,” she says. “And there are two questions. One is whether there’s a constitutional right to marry. And the second question is whether states that allow gay marriage, and couples who are married in those states, whether those marriages have to be recognized in the states where it’s illegal.”

"[The] five-justice majority believes very strongly that money is speech and the four in the minority believe that money is not speech – and there you have it. And until the composition of the court changes, or a constitutional amendment is enacted, I'm afraid that's where we are." - Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent

Totenberg notes that if the court says there is a constitutional right to marry and no state can deny that right, then the second question is moot. “But it could split the difference, in which case people who are married in Vermont could go to Texas and have their marriages recognized there,” she says. “I think that’s an unlikely result but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

On why these issues matter

“Well, you know, it really does govern our lives,” she says. “If you’re gay and you want to get married, for example, how this case turns out will affect your life very significantly.” Totenberg says recent issues that have gone before the court affect how people live, including whether they have access to contraceptive services, whether they have access to courts and, additionally, "how criminal cases proceed, and increasingly what the rights of people on Facebook and other social media are. And so all of these issues have an enormous effect on how people live,” she says. “But there’s no real reason for them to have known that unless they are directly involved, so it’s my job to make it interesting.”

"All of these issues have an enormous effect on how people live. But there’s no real reason for [people] to have known that unless they are directly involved, so it’s my job to make it interesting.”

On getting started in journalism

“I started out working on the women’s page at the Boston Record, so I worked for them for a while,” Totenberg says. “I did an extra shift a great many times to work at night, I covered the city council meetings, school committee meetings, the crime beat or whatever.” After leaving the Boston Record, Totenberg says she went to work for the Peabody Times in Massachusetts, while freelancing at night covering the 1968 presidential campaign in New Hampshire.

After moving to Washington, D.C., Totenberg says she got started at what was then a small publication called Roll Call, then the National Observer. She says she “finally landed” at NPR in 1975, which was almost 40 years ago.

On her connections to Vermont

Totenberg's husband, David Reines, went to the University of Vermont Medical School and then did his residency in Burlington. “Many Vermonters may not know this, but Vermont Medical School was the medical school also for Massachusetts residents. When he went there in the 1970s, there was no medical state school for Massachusetts residents,” she says. “And he so fell in love with his mentor, Chairman of Surgery John Davis, that he decided to stay and do his residency there as well.”

"Pat Leahy, who then had a full head of hair..."

It was during this time that Totenberg’s husband, met then-State's Attorney Patrick Leahy. “[David] and a couple of his friends wanted to start a place where kids on bad trips, drug trips, could go and get treatment. And the only way to know how to treat them is to know what kind of drugs they had taken, so he went to see then-State’s Attorney Leahy to ask him to help him do this,” says Totenberg.

“Pat Leahy, who then had a full head of hair, granted them immunity and told them that when they get some of these bag drugs — and there was a lot of bad stuff coming into the state at the time — they should take them over to the state police station.” She says that her husband, who at that point had “shoulder-length hair, a Fu Manchu mustache and bell-bottoms,” then had to bring a paper bag full of drugs to the state police station. He was very nervous, says Totenberg, but Leahy had done his part and told the troopers, and Reines was on his way.

What advice will she be giving to UVM graduates?

“I actually don’t give advice to grads that is terribly significant, because there’s nothing I can tell them that they haven’t heard a million times over,” says Totenberg. She says that as a commencement speaker, she tries to keep it short, not talk too long, be “mildly” entertaining and talk about what she feels is important in citizenship.

"I actually don't give advice to grads that is terribly significant, because there's nothing I can tell them that they haven't heard a million times over."

“And lastly, I try to tell them something about life and what’s important in life,” she says. “And then you’re done, you’re out of there, and if you’re lucky, they’ll remember that you were the speaker, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll remember what you said.”