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Supreme Court Wraps Up Term

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That's a wrap on the latest term at the U.S. Supreme Court. This week's oral arguments dealt with free speech, religious freedom and the future of Obamacare again. In a first, the justices heard those arguments remotely because of the pandemic. And, of course, this term included a new justice, Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and that gave the conservatives a solid 6-3 majority. Who better to join us now then NPR's Supreme legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Nina, thanks so much for being with us.

TOTENBERG: My pleasure.

SIMON: I got to ask - moving arguments online met the public. Anyone could log in and listen to them live. And they heard a much more expansive Clarence Thomas, didn't they?

TOTENBERG: They did because these arguments were organized of necessity, entirely differently than normal. Normally, it's just something of an intellectual free-for-all. And the justices just interrupt the counsel all the time, sometimes each other, to try to get at a point they're trying to understand or make or whatever. You can't do that when you're on the telephone. And these were telephone arguments. These were not Zoom arguments. And so everybody had a turn, which was two or three minutes long. And that meant that Justice Thomas would have had to pass, and he didn't do that. He asked perfectly good questions almost all the time. I think I heard him pass once or twice. And so we got to hear his voice.

I have to say, the character of the arguments, however, was significantly different. And I think everybody would tell you from justice to lawyers, they were far inferior to the normal variety of argument because they were boring. They didn't get at really important things. Each justice was so limited that it wasn't - it bore very little resemblance to a normal argument.

SIMON: And, of course, the first interaction of Justice Amy Coney Barrett with her colleagues. What stood out for you? What impact did she have? What influence?

TOTENBERG: Amy Coney Barrett, of course, who's one of the Trump three appointees, votes very much like the justice she once clerked for, Antonin Scalia. But she lacks his - what do you call it? - joie de vivre, occasionally joie de bully, his flair. Her questions sound at least incredibly technical and difficult to follow sometimes. And I would suspect that most laymen and even most people who cover the Supreme Court, at least this one, have to actually read the transcript to understand what she was asking at times.

SIMON: Finally, Nina, Justice Stephen Breyer - he's 82. Is pressure increasing on him to step down while a Democratic president could nominate his successor?

TOTENBERG: Well, first of all, we don't even know whether he has indicated to the White House one way or another that he plans to stay or leave. He may have done nothing. He may have actually told them that he's going to announce his retirement at the end of the term. We don't know because this White House is very good at keeping secrets, at least so far. But that said, the left of the Democratic Party is going ape-bleep over...

SIMON: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: ...Their desire to see things...

SIMON: That's a Latin term in the law, right?

TOTENBERG: Ape-bleep is a Latin term.

SIMON: Right.

TOTENBERG: Trying to get him to retire to the point that one group actually hired a truck with a big sign saying, you know, Breyer, retire or some version of - thereof to drive around the Supreme Court, no matter, of course, that he's not there. He's at his home in Cambridge. So if you're trying to get somebody to do something, doing this is really dumb. People don't like being pushed around about life decisions. If somebody hires a truck to drive around NPR saying, Nina, retire, well, I'm not doing it either way. But if I were even contemplating it, there is no freaking way that I would be doing that.

SIMON: I pity the truck that tries it.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter).

SIMON: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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