Health of the U.S. Supreme Court can have profound political and societal impact, veteran journalist says

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg

Of all the executive powers granted to the U.S. President, few can have such an enduring impact and are as irrevocable as appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices. But vacancies on the court are relatively rare, generally only arising when a justice retires or dies, because the nine justices receive lifetime appointments.

So it’s no surprise that the health of a Supreme Court justice and the anticipation of a potential vacancy can create a political stir, according to Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio.

Ms. Totenberg, whose coverage of the Supreme Court and legal affairs has won her widespread recognition and multiple awards, will discuss how the physical and mental well-being of Supreme Court justices have affected U.S. politics, from the court’s establishment in 1789 to today, when she delivers this year’s Martin Memorial Lecture, The Health of the Supreme Court, Monday morning.

“The history of the Supreme Court is full of examples of justices continuing to serve, for many years in some cases, when their physical or mental fitness and their ability to serve was in question,” Ms. Totenberg said. “When a justice is thinking about retiring, it has been generally thought that it’s better to do it during a Republican administration if they were appointed by a Republican, or vice versa. That has led some justices to hold onto their seats on the bench longer, perhaps, than they should have.”

The timing of a Supreme Court vacancy, no matter the circumstances, can have profound long-term implications, Ms. Totenberg said, particularly with regard to how it impacts the court’s balance of liberal, conservative, and moderate justices.

“Today, we have a court that is divided five to four between Republican-appointed conservatives, including three very hardline conservatives and two more moderate hardliners, and four moderate liberal Democrat-appointed justices,” Ms. Totenberg said. “If that changes and becomes six-three, you can forget it in terms of any liberal victories in any case that is even remotely closely divided. Even if one conservative justice were to dissent and side with the liberals, it wouldn’t matter.”

That possibility, Ms. Totenberg said, is the reason why recent headlines regarding the health of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—who, at 86 years old, is the oldest justice serving on the court—have generated a lot of attention, speculation, and concern among liberals.

“There are a lot of hot-button issues the court may be making crucial decisions on in the near future—things like immigration and gun control—as well as issues of great interest to the medical community, such as the Affordable Care Act, abortion rights, and end-of-life issues,” Ms. Totenberg said. “Those are issues that will be coming to the court, and the difference between what the current five-four court and a potential 
six-three court might decide could have very significant long-term implications.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Totenberg conducted a wide-ranging interview with Justice Ginsburg, whom she has known and been friends with for many years. During the interview, Justice Ginsburg dispelled the notion that she would be retiring any time soon.

Ms. Totenberg said she also asked Justice Ginsburg a couple of questions in preparation for Monday’s lecture, and she will share some of what the justice had to say.

After the address, Ms. Totenberg will participate in a special meet-and-greet event beginning at 9:45 am in Moscone Center West, 3024.

The Martin Memorial Lecture was established in 1946 to honor Franklin H. Martin, MD, FACS, founder of the American College of Surgeons, and his wife, Isabelle Hollister Martin. The Martin Memorial Lecture is alternately nominated by the Advisory Council for Urological Surgery and the ACS Honors Committee.

Martin Memorial Lecture

The Health of the Supreme Court
Nina Totenberg
9:00–9:30 am, Monday
Moscone Center West, Ballroom