The Life and Death of Anthony Lewis, a 'Tribune of the Law'

The author of Gideon's Trumpet changed the way legal issues are covered and understood in America.

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The great legal writer and journalist Anthony Lewis has died -- at age 85, at his home in Massachusetts, on the eve of oral arguments in two epic gay rights cases he surely would have been able to explain better than most. One of his successors at the New York Times, Adam Liptak, has written a fine obituary that gives you a flavor for how talented Lewis was and how significant was his impact on contemporary coverage of legal events and issues.

The headline of the obit says that Lewis "transformed" coverage of the United States Supreme Court, and he did. But he did much more than that. He transformed coverage of the broader beat of the law, and he inspired generations of writers (and lawyers and judges, for that matter) to try to better explain and translate legal jargon into phrases and concepts that laypeople could more easily understand.

Lewis' masterwork, Gideon's Trumpet, was a piece of art for precisely this reason -- word by word, simple sentence by simple sentence, he deconstructed the Sixth Amendment's right to a fair trial, and murky Supreme Court procedure, and state law, and the insular world of Washington law firms, and all the other satellite topics that revolved around that seminal case. Here is a representative passage:

The case of Gideon v. Wainwright is in part a testament to a single human being. Against all the odds of inertia and ignorance and fear of state power, Clarence Earl Gideon insisted that he had a right to a lawyer and kept on insisting all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States

His triumph there shows that the poorest and least powerful of men-- a convict with note even a friend to visit him in prison -- can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.

But of course Gideon was not really alone; there were working for him forces in law and society larger than he could understand. His case was part of a current of history, and it will be read in that light by thousands of persons who will known no more about Clarence Earl Gideon than that he stood up in a Florida court and said: "The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel."

For his work, in 1963, he won a Pulitzer Prize (his second, his first coming years earlier with his equally trenchant work covering the civil rights movement). Afterward, taking the longer view, Lewis wrote pointedly and poignantly for decades on the op-ed page of the Times, wrote excellent books like Make No Law (about the key first amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan), and contributed regularly to the New York Review of Books.

When given the chance over the years, I always tell young journalists and young lawyers to read everything Lewis has written, because his writing was always so clear, and so accessible, and such a good starting point for more involved research on any given legal topic. Others evidently agreed. "He's as clear a writer as I think I know," former Times editor Joseph Lelyveld told Liptak. There will likely be no dissent from that opinion.

In the coming days and weeks, many people who knew Lewis better than I did will surely share their stories about his profound career covering the law and politics. We'll hear about his clever speeches, his column writing, his unique relationship with the justices of the Supreme Court, and about his relationship with his beloved wife, Margaret Marshall, the former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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