Monday, April 22, 2013

Anthony Lewis's Passionate Voice for Justice

      Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was something of a backwater beat. The regular press corps was so small — half a dozen newspaper and wire service reporters — that they sat between counsel table and the bench, able to stare straight up at the nine justices. Protocol was so relaxed that reporters could use typewriters to take notes.
      Things are much different today. The regular press corps is larger: about 30 people have “permanent” press credentials. The press gallery has been moved off to the side of the court’s bench, with some seats inside the courtroom, others in cubicles just outside, and obstructed-view hallway seats for an overflow crowd that can number more than 100 for arguments in a major case.
      Protocol and security are also tighter. Reporters can bring pen and paper only. In an era of ubiquitous cell phones and BlackBerrys, reporters are admonished strictly to leave all electronic devices in the downstairs press room.
      Beyond the visible differences in the arrangements for news media, the coverage of the Supreme Court also has changed dramatically. There is more coverage by more news organizations on more platforms: newspapers and magazines, radio and television, and the web. And the coverage is both more detailed and more insightful, with careful attention to making stories legally precise as well as fully accessible to general audiences.
      No single individual deserves more credit for this transformation than Anthony Lewis, who died last month (March 25) two days shy of his 86th birthday after an award-winning journalistic career that spanned six decades. Lewis held the Supreme Court beat for The New York Times for less than a decade, 1955-1964, but he established a new standard for coverage by which Supreme Court reporters have been judged ever since.
      The Times’s obituary, written by Adam Liptak, Lewis’s successor four-times-removed, aptly conveys the debt that readers and viewers of Supreme Court coverage today owe to Lewis. Before Lewis, Supreme Court coverage was apt to consist of “pedestrian recitations” of decisions with little by way of context or legal reasoning. The “thorough knowledge” of the court that Lewis gained during a year of study at Harvard Law School as a Nieman fellow changed that. Lewis’s articles, Liptak writes, “were virtual tutorials about currents in legal thinking, written with ease and sweep and an ability to render complex matters accessible.”
      Like countless others, this writer first read Lewis’s work — while a teenager — in Gideon’s Trumpet, Lewis’s masterful and celebratory account of the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision that required the government to provide lawyers to indigent defendants in criminal cases. By the time the book was published, in 1964, Lewis had already won his two Pulitzer prizes. The first, in 1955, was for stories helping to clear a Navy employee wrongly accused of disloyalty during the McCarthy era. The second, in 1963, was for his coverage of the Supreme Court, especially of its epochal decisions on reapportionment and redistricting.
      Lewis left the Supreme Court beat in 1964, but he did not leave behind his knowledge of law or his passion for justice. After a few years in the London bureau, Lewis started a 32-year career in 1969 as a Times columnist under the rotating titles “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home.”
      Whether writing about events in the United States or in foreign countries, Lewis constantly returned to stories of people who had been wronged by misuse of law or cast aside by virtue of its neglect. In a tribute in The New York Review (May 9), Georgetown law professor and immigrant rights’ advocate David Cole recalled Lewis’s recurrent columns on the harsh strictures of immigration law and immigration court decisions.
      The tributes to Lewis that began with his death continued in Washington last week [April 18] as the Constitution Project bestowed on him and three others its constitutional champions award for their work on Gideon and its legacy. Accepting the award on his behalf, his widow, Margaret Marshall, the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, recalled Lewis’s devotion to the U.S. Constitution.
      “Tony loved the Constitution of the United States,” Marshall said. “He lived the Constitution. He taught the Constitution. He believed in the Constitution. He wrote about the Constitution over and over and over and over.” In Lewis’s view, Marshall continued, the greatness of the United States — what conservatives might call “American exceptionalism” — “lies in our willingness to accept the Constitution, as interpreted by judges, as law.”
      Lewis retired the column on December 15, 2001. With the 9/11 attacks fresh in mind, Lewis reaffirmed his belief in the rule of law. “Without the foundation of law, this vast country could never have survived as one, could never have absorbed streams of immigrants from myriad cultures,” Lewis wrote. “With one terrible exception, the Civil War, law and the Constitution have kept America whole and free.”
      Lewis cautioned, however, that the rule of law is not self-executing. “Freedom under law is hard work,” he concluded. “If rulers cannot be trusted with arbitrary power, it is up to citizens to raise their voices at injustice.” Lewis raised his voice at injustice, eloquently and passionately, over more than half a century of turbulent times at home and abroad. His voice is now silenced, but his legacy lives on in the work of those — like myself — whom he educated and inspired.

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