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Author Nina Totenberg on her decades-long friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg


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Judy Woodruff: Nina Totenberg has been covering the Supreme Court for NPR since the 1970s. And it was early in her reporting career that she formed what would become a decades-long friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I spoke with Nina yesterday about their relationship, which is also the focus of her new book, "Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships."

Nina Totenberg, thank you very much for joining us.

One thing that people may not know is that you met Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1971, 20 years before she was on the Supreme Court. Tell us that story.

Nina Totenberg, Author, "Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships": Well, I called her up because I didn't understand something in a brief she filed in what turned out to be the first major sex discrimination case in which the Supreme Court said women are covered by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

She was a law professor. And she was a law professor at Rutgers. And I called her up. And I got an hour-long lecture. And, after that, I started calling her more and more. And we became first professional friends and then personal friends.

Judy Woodruff: And what kind of friendship was it? I mean, you have so many stories in the book about times you spent together. How close were you truly to her?

Nina Totenberg: Well, I think I was most close to her toward the end of her life, in the last couple of years, especially during the lockdown, when our house was really the only place outside her apartment that she went.

My husband and cooked dinner for her and be about, I think, 23 or 24 straight Saturdays. And they were always reserved for Ruth. And — but we were always close, but I didn't see her every day or every — even every week. Sometimes, I saw her from a distance on the bench.

But we were lifelong friends, essentially, from the time we were young women on.

Judy Woodruff: There is an overused adage about this town, which goes along this line. If you want a real friend in Washington, get a dog.


Judy Woodruff: It's a reference to how transactional so many relationships are. But you haven't found that?

Nina Totenberg: No. And my experience has been quite to the contrary, that, if you're interested in people, and you like people, they're interested in you and like you back.

And I had conservative friends, like Justice Scalia, who were my friends for decades, in addition to Ruth, and other people that — who are not household words. And it was really important to me and I think to them, that we were able to be friends, despite whatever they didn't — they didn't like maybe something I wrote about them or whatever. They could get over it, and I could get over it.

Judy Woodruff: From another angle, Nina Totenberg, there's this criticism that reporters, that the press is sometimes too close to their sources, and that it's not a healthy thing.

How do you see that?

Nina Totenberg: Well, it's not easy sometimes to write critically about somebody you like, but it's your job.

And my experience has been that it's better to know the people you're covering and understand who they are than to not know these people at all. But there are boundaries. And when you cover a Supreme Court justice or a judge, the boundaries are pretty clear.

Judy Woodruff: And what are they?

Nina Totenberg: You treat them — you write about what they do and what they — the product they produce, their opinions, and they don't discuss what goes on behind the scenes or what's happening in a pending case. They're not supposed, and they don't.

Judy Woodruff: But doesn't being friends with someone make you more disposed to want to see their side of the story, of an argument?

Nina Totenberg: Well, you want to see everybody's side. That's what we're supposed to do.

Every — when I write a story, my object is to make sure it's fair, and that everybody has their say-so. And what I think is, frankly, not relevant.

Judy Woodruff: I want to circle back to Justice Ginsburg.

She was well-known for her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who couldn't have been more different from her, apparently, in terms of their judicial philosophy. Is that kind of friendship possible in today's court, do you think?

Nina Totenberg: I'm not sure.

I mean, the court now, today, seems quite riven by divisions. And there is no center of the court. There — in the decades that I have covered the court, there always was a center, one, two or three people who were not in one camp or another. And it sort of made everybody try to reach consensus, I think, a little more. That's not true today.

There are six very conservative justices. It's probably a court more conservative than any court in maybe 90 years. And it's — it seems to me that, after the leak, the celebrated leak, especially that, that it's a court with a lot of problems.

Judy Woodruff: And what do you think that portends in terms of what this court is going to be able to do?

Nina Totenberg: I don't know.

I mean, the chief justice has talked about that people should still trust the court even when they don't agree. But when the court itself is so internally divided and so unhappy with each other, I think, it doesn't help matters.

Judy Woodruff: The last thing I want to ask you about also related to Justice Ginsburg is the Dobbs decision.

You make it very clear in the book how she had this longstanding view of women's reproductive rights, even though she thought that the Roe decision might have been too sweeping, too much, too fast. But she still had very strong views on it.

Do you think, if she were still on the court, that we would have seen the Dobbs decision?

Nina Totenberg: I — this is one of the things it's indeterminate. I think — but I don't think that there were the votes.

The difference is that, if she had been there still, it would have been 5-4, and just Chief John Roberts, who had a more modest approach to limiting Roe, I guess one would say, might well have prevailed.

But it's 6-3, and they don't need his vote. I mean, he's a very active conservative Republican in some areas, but this was just a step too far for him, I think. And he made that pretty clear. And he couldn't get anybody to go along with him.

Judy Woodruff: Well, the book is Nina Totenberg's "Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships."

Thank you, Nina.

Nina Totenberg: Thank you, dear friend.


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