Anthony Lewis dies: Pioneering journalist gave legal writing a storyline

Anthony Lewis dies after a long career that included two Pulitzer prizes, several classic books, and 32 years of commentary on issues ranging from civil liberties and apartheid to the rights of indigent defendants.

AP/File
New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis reads about the Pulitzer prizes while at the Boston bureau of The Associated Press in 1963. The two-time Pulitzer winner, whose New York Times column championed liberal causes for three decades, died Monday.

Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times columnist, died Monday, leaving behind a legacy of transforming American legal journalism.

His reporting on the US Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963, heralded a new approach to legal journalism: writing compelling stories that dug into the social impact of the court’s decisions.

“He brought context to the law,” Ronald K.L. Collins, a University of Washington scholar who produced a bibliography of Mr. Lewis’s work, told The New York Times. “He had an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”

Fellow journalists shared their appreciation for Lewis on Monday, highlighting his legal expertise, his liberal values, and his passion for the role that journalists play in maintaining democracy.

Lewis began covering the US Supreme Court and Department of Justice for The New York Times in 1955 as a member of the Washington bureau. He came to the Times after working for the Washington Daily News, where he won his first Pulitzer Prize for a critical series on a Navy employee, Abraham Chasanow, who was unjustly fired for being a security risk. The New York Times Washington bureau chief, James Reston, sent Lewis to Harvard Law School in 1956 and 1957 on a Neiman Fellowship to study law with particular emphasis on the court, according to The New York Times.

Lewis then spent nine years reporting on the Supreme Court, which at the time was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

“You cannot talk about the legacy of the Warren court and not talk about Tony Lewis,” Mr. Collins told The New York Times. “He was just part and parcel of it. He was part of ushering in that constitutional revolution in civil rights and civil liberties from Brown v. Board of Education to Miranda v. Arizona.”

In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg argued that Lewis should have been the court’s 10th justice.

“Tony Lewis knew more about the Constitution and the laws, their history and meaning, than the vast majority of Supreme Court Justices, let alone lawyers,” Mr. Hertzberg writes.

Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, said she grew up reading Lewis’s New York Times columns, which ran from 1969 to 2001. In courses she teaches at Yale Law School, she assigns his book “Make No Law,” which chronicles the 1964 Supreme Court ruling on New York v. Sullivan that rewrote US libel law.

“I teach Lewis for legal substance as much as for context and style: His rendering of the Supreme Court’s momentous opinion is clearer than the opinion itself,” Ms. Bazelon writes. “He was a master elucidator: the writer who translated the Warren court for the public, and in that role, magnified its impact.”

She wonders what Lewis would have thought of the Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage, which are taking place Tuesday and Wednesday.

“If those of us who write about the cases manage to describe them clearly and sharply, we’ll owe Lewis for setting the standard,” Bazelon writes.

In The Nation, historian Rick Perlstein said Lewis was unflinching in his reporting of “uncomfortable truths” and his definition of patriotism was “holding leaders accountable for their sins.”

Mr. Perlstein found in his research of Lewis’s reporting during the 1960s and ‘70s that Lewis had a “consistent astringent vision and moral courage when it came to executive power and the national security state – a willingness to record the ugliest things the American state was up to, and to unflinchingly interpret them not as the exceptions of a nation that is fundamentally innocent but as part of a pattern of power-drunk arrogance.”

Boston Herald opinion editor Rachelle Cohen said she keeps a copy of Lewis’s last book, “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment,” as a reminder of journalism’s rocky past and Lewis’s focus on the role of press freedom.

She highlights a favorite passage from the book’s introduction: “The meaning of the First Amendment has been, and will be, shaped by each American generation: by judges, political leaders, citizens. There will always be authorities who try to make their own lives more comfortable by suppressing critical comment.... But I am convinced that the fundamental American commitment to free speech, disturbing speech, is no longer in doubt.”

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