Goodbye, Tony Lewis

Thank you for making the law alive.

Journalist Anthony Lewis participates in 'JFK & The Assassination: 40 Year Later' presented by TimesTalks at the Hunter College Kaye Playhouse October 29, 2003 in New York City.
Journalist Anthony Lewis during a TimesTalks in 2003 at the Hunter College Kaye Playhouse in New York City.

Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

It’s fitting that Anthony Lewis died after the 50th anniversary, earlier this month, of Gideon v. Wainwright. That’s the Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a right to counsel for poor defendants charged with felonies. Gideon’s promise may be partly unfulfilled, but it changed indelibly how we think about legal representation—as a right, not a luxury. For that, we have Lewis to thank as much as anyone. It was Lewis, in his 1964 book Gideon’s Trumpet, who told the plaintiff’s story: Clarence Gideon had been charged with breaking and entering into a pool hall, with the intent of stealing from the cash register. Afterward, Gideon had been told he had no right to a lawyer. He had written a letter in pencil from prison to the Supreme Court, petitioning for counsel on his own behalf.

In his excellent obituary for Lewis, who died at 85 today at his home in Cambridge, Adam Liptak points out that Gideon’s Trumpet has never been out of print, and he references all the readers who received it as a gift before entering law school. For me, Lewis’ book, along with Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, were reasons to become a legal journalist: examples of storytelling and lucid explanation I couldn’t imagine matching but could always aspire to. In the courses I teach at Yale Law School, I like to assign part of another Lewis book, Make No Law, about New York v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court ruling that rewrote libel law in the United States. 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. He was a master elucidator: the writer who translated the Warren court for the public, and in that role, magnified its impact.

I grew up reading Lewis’ opinion column for the New York Times, which ran from 1969 to 2001. I took it for granted. My father is a lawyer, and my grandfather was a judge; the concerns that coursed through Lewis’ column were often theirs, too. He believed in the rightness and goodness of the judiciary more than I do, but maybe that’s because he was married to a particularly fine example: Margaret Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and author of the 2003 decision that legalized same-sex marriage in her state. I wonder what Lewis would have made of the Supreme Court arguments about gay marriage this week, and even more of whatever ruling the justices hand down this summer. If those of us who write about the cases manage to describe them clearly and sharply, we’ll owe Lewis for setting the standard.