Nina Totenberg reflects on her friendship with Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg : NPR

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NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg and Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Totenberg and Ginsburg met in the 1970s and remained friends until Ginsburg’s death in 2020 .

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NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg and Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Totenberg and Ginsburg met in the 1970s and remained friends until Ginsburg’s death in 2020 .

Robin Marchant/Getty Images

Decades before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an iconic Supreme Court justice — and long before Nina Totenberg was an award-winning NPR legal affairs correspondent — the two women became friends. They met in the early 1970s, when Totenberg interviewed Ginsburg, then a Rutgers law professor, for an article about a Supreme Court decision affecting women’s rights.

Over the years, Totenberg and Ginsburg have supported each other through crises, including the illnesses and deaths of Ginsburg’s husband in 2010 and Totenberg’s first husband in 1998.

“I’ve always thought the best way to cover someone who’s important in the beat you’re covering is to try to get to know them and get a sense of who they are and what drives them” , says Totenberg. “And if they’re nice people – and most of them are – they become friends after a while.”

As friends, they tried to avoid topics that ran through their professional relationship, but maintaining that boundary was sometimes tricky. There was an interview scheduled, after Ginsburg criticized then-candidate Donald Trump, in which Justice did not want Totenberg to ask him about the comments. But Totenberg knew she couldn’t take a beating.

“I just said, ‘I’m sorry, Ruth, I can’t do this. It’s my job,'” Totenberg recalled. “I said, ‘You can take me out of the interview if you want. And she did. She bored me. So that’s the entry price.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, when Ginsburg was in poor health, Totenberg would invite Justice over for dinner. Ginsburg died Sept. 18, 2020, leaving a vacancy on the court that was later filled by Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett. Now Totenberg has written a book about their friendship titled Dinners with Ruth. It’s also a memoir about Totenberg’s life and his friendships with NPR’s Cokie Roberts, who reported on Congress, and Linda Wertheimer, who covered politics.

Interview Highlights

On the test case that Ginsburg thought was stronger than Roe vs. Wade to protect the right to abortion

Dinners with Ruth
Dinners with Ruth

She represented a woman named Susan Struck, who was a captain in the Air Force and became pregnant. And according to the rules of the army, as they were then, she had to either have an abortion or be discharged, and she wanted to stay in the army, and she arranged for the child to be adopted by people she knew. It’s sort of the flip side of the coin. Justice Ginsburg was of the view that women are entitled to their own personal autonomy in what happens to their bodies, and that includes procreation. So she appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Court agreed to hear the case the same year as deer. But the government, the Solicitor General, realized that it was probably going to lose this case, and it gave in. This changed the rule. And so there was really no more case and controversy, as they say, which I wouldn’t say broke her heart, but she thought it was a much better case and it illustrated a lot better the dilemma of interfering with the personal autonomy that deer. …

She often represented people who illustrated the other side of the coin: men who wanted the same rights as women. … [There was] a law that discriminated in one case, for example, against a man who wanted a tax deduction because he was caring for his elderly mother. And if he had been a single woman, he would have been entitled to the deduction. But because he was a man, he wasn’t. So it’s a “Ruthian” approach, as I call it, very classic.

On Ginsburg living with shingles in the last years of his life

Curiously, one of the most painful things is that a few years before her death, she had shingles. And in typical Ruth fashion, she just ignored him. She thought it was a small rash, and she should just work her way through it. And after about two weeks, she went to the capitol doctor who said, “You have shingles,” and prescribed everything you prescribe for shingles. But my husband [surgeon David Reines] was in a state about it because he feared that because it had gone on for so long and because she had other challenges, she would never completely get rid of it. And that’s what happened. The blisters are gone, but not the pain. And my husband and his doctor have tried everything to ease the pain. And the only thing that worked was a lidocaine patch, which you can’t wear for more than 12 hours a day. So she had to choose which 12 hours: Did she want to sleep or did she want to be comfortable on the bench? And the answer was that she wanted to sleep.

On the possibility of the Supreme Court making contraception illegal

Probably the biggest threat to contraception for women in this country is accessibility – that all sorts of things can be done to make it less accessible and to make certain methods of contraception, which are more manageable, certain IUDs, less accessible, and especially for people in rural areas where there is no giant CVS around the corner, certainly harder to get. …

The Court ruled that if you are a pharmacist or provide a public service you cannot discriminate against people based on what they want to have which is legal but I am not sure that will hold up with this Court . I don’t know if it’s likely, but it’s possible — or it’s possible that people just refuse to fill prescriptions and make them inaccessible that way. The range of possibilities in the conflict between church and state as it now exists is quite remarkable to behold.

On the challenges of being 26 years younger than her first husband, Senator Floyd Haskell

Well, the challenge is really that he was from another era. He wanted me to come home regularly at night. He was very proud of me. And he supported me a lot in my professional career. On the other hand, he really wanted me to be home at 7 o’clock at night, and I couldn’t do that all the time. And that would make him angry, not furious, but it was a constant irritant. Besides, it had nothing to do with his age, but oddly, he didn’t like big parties full of interesting people. He liked small dinner parties. So if we were going to a big party and I was in heaven because I could find out about all kinds of interesting things, and he wanted to leave. And so he said, “I’m leaving without saying goodbye. She’s saying goodbye without leaving.”

On Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to leave Ginsburg’s casket undisturbed in the Capitol rotunda

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the casket to lie in state in Statuary Hall instead, and that is the domain of the House of Representatives. So there was still this ceremony. It was just an indication to me of how far our country’s partisanship has come today. I mean, McConnell didn’t come to the ceremony. No top Republicans from either House came. And I just thought it was – what my mom would have said – bad manners.

Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio for this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.


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