To begin her lecture yesterday, Nina Totenberg, an award-winning legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, described the lighter side of the U.S. Supreme Court and its justices.

Totenberg recalled when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noticed fellow Justice Harry Blackmun nodding off in court one day and told him to “Stay awake!” in front of the other justices.

“They are very interesting people, but they are still people,” Totenberg reminded audience members at the Mendelssohn Theater.

Totenberg’s lecture, co-sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the University’s women’s studies department, focused on the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on women’s rights and its increasing conservatism.

Totenberg, who began working at NPR in 1975, made a name for herself with her coverage of the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation proceedings, which earned her a Peabody Award – a prestigious honor for excellence in electronic media reporting.

In discussing the Supreme Court’s influence on women, Totenberg said she was mentored by ex-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor starting in 1971 about topics like whether the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandated equal protection under law and due process to all Americans, could be applied to women.

“I got a lecture from the future Supreme Court Justice, and the answer was that those words apply to women as much as men,” Totenberg said.

Totenberg also discussed current power dynamics in the Supreme Court, and how the imminent resignations of justices could impact the balance of power in the court.

She said she has seen the court grow more and more conservative over recent years.

“This court is light years more conservative than in the 1970s when it was populated by Nixon and Ford nominees,” she said.

To support this claim, she pointed toward the court’s changing position on abortion, which began with a 7-2 decision upholding abortion in Roe v. Wade to the recent Gonzales v. Carhart case in which the court ruled 5-4 against partial birth abortion rights.

“Really only one thing changed – the composition of the court,” she said.

In the past 25 years, Totenberg said, some of the Court’s most historically liberal judges, appointed by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, have retired and been replaced by more conservative nominees put in power by Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush.

She said that trend continued in the George W. Bush presidency, with the appointment of Samuel Alito to replace O’Connor.

“We are seeing the flipside of the (Earl) Warren court,” Totenberg said. “That’s not to say justices are not trying to strike down laws that are unconstitutional. I’m just pointing out a trend.”

Totenberg said the Court’s current abortion laws could make it harder and more expensive for clinics to operate.

“You don’t need to reverse Roe vs. Wade outright to have the same effect,” she said. “I suspect that is the direction the Supreme Court is headed.”

After the lecture, doctoral student Samantha Worzalla said she attended the event because she’s an NPR fan.

“I just wanted to be more informed,” she said.

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