Before Anthony Lewis—who died on March 25—began covering the Supreme Court for The New York Times in 1955, there were, of course, journalists who reported on legal decisions. But Lewis, who attended Harvard Law School as a journalism fellow in 1956 and went on to teach both there and at the Columbia Journalism School, created something different: a new approach to legal journalism. He combined sophisticated legal analysis with an unparalleled ability to write in plain, lucid English, translating the Court’s decisions, explaining their implications, and assessing their significance for a broad readership.
Since then, many have followed along a similar path: Linda Greenhouse, Nina Totenberg, Dahlia Lithwick, Lyle Denniston, Joan Biskupic, Jeffrey Toobin, David Savage, Lincoln Caplan, and Adam Liptak, to name just a few. They all owe something to Lewis. He showed that it could be done, and did it with a grace and commitment second to none.
But Lewis was more than a path-breaking newspaperman. He was the nation’s most consistent voice for justice for over half a century. In his best-selling books, more than thirty years of columns for The New York Times, and his many contributions in these pages, Lewis insistently told stories of injustice, with the evident hope that by telling them, he might help create pressure to correct wrongs.
Lewis’s conviction and passion can be traced to his earliest work experiences. He won his first Pulitzer Prize, while working at the Washington Daily News, for a series he wrote on the Navy’s wrongful dismissal on security grounds of Abraham Chasanow, a civilian who was employed in an office responsible for charting the oceans. Chasanow was accused by anonymous informants of associating with Communist sympathizers, and denied a fair chance to confront the charges. Lewis’s series of articles on the case is credited with convincing the Navy to review the case, exonerate Chasanow, and reform its security procedures. That experience seems to have remained with Lewis throughout his life. He devoted countless columns on the New York Times Op-Ed pages to such stories, not only in the US but abroad, and, not infrequently, he helped see that justice was done.
As a young lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, I was often the beneficiary of Lewis’s storytelling. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s I represented several men and women whom the government sought to deport for their political affiliations or ideas, often on the basis of secret evidence that they had no opportunity to confront or rebut. They were latter-day victims comparable to Abe Chasanow. Lewis wrote about each one of them.
In 1987, for example, he condemned the Reagan administration for attempting to deport Margaret Randall, an American-born citizen who had taken Mexican citizenship, for advocating “the doctrines of world communism” in her poetry and oral histories. That same year, he brought the nation’s attention to the immigration service’s arrest of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.