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Nina Totenberg: Supreme Court is the quiet in the eye of the storm

Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent, answers a question during her talk at Centennial Reunion. 
June 15, 2011

When Nina Totenberg was starting to cover legal affairs 35 years ago, a curious article in a law journal caught her eye.

It argued that the 14th Amendment provides equal protection to women. It was, Totenberg thought, a novel idea.

She called the author and ended up getting an hour-long tutorial on women's rights -- from Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Women like Ginsburg, Totenberg told an overflow crowd in the 1962 Room during Centennial Reunion, are changing the tenor of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"You can see the effect," said Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent. Women often understand certain issues, such as equal pay, better than the men on the court, she said.

Totenberg said she decided to devote her talk to the role of women on the court in honor of the women who founded Connecticut College. Centennial Reunion celebrated the 100th anniversary of the chartering of the College by women who wanted to make sure all deserving students -- including girls -- could get a four-year liberal arts education in Connecticut.

Totenberg, who is friends with Ginsburg (the justice even presided at her wedding a few years ago) said that when Ginsburg graduated from law school she was refused a job as a clerk because she was a woman, and later wore loose clothes to hide her pregnancy.

As a justice, she fought inequality. Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the two other sitting women justices, are also changing the tenor of the Supreme Court, Totenberg said. 

She urged the 400 people in the audience to pay close attention to the court and even read some of the decisions on its website, The justices are careful to write opinions that can be readily understood, she said.

"There are enormous consequences in most of these cases," she said. "We are very quiet here," she said, paraphrasing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, "but it's the quiet in the storm center."





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