Susan Estrich: Lewis brought law to life

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If you were to ask me who inspired me to become a lawyer, two people would jump to mind. The first, not surprisingly, was my father, a sole practitioner in Lynn, Mass., who never made any money but loved his work, not only because it was intellectually challenging, but also because he spent his days helping people, one at a time.

The second was Tony Lewis, a man I did not meet until decades later but whose work I devoured. His obituary, published recently in The New York Times, for whom he wrote for 30 years, described him as the “Supreme Court Reporter Who Brought Law to Life.” He did. And he brought that life to a girl who had never set foot in the Supreme Court.

Lewis taught me that the law could be a vehicle not only for helping individuals but also for changing society. He taught me that the rule of law is a miracle, shaped by the courage of those who apply the broad precepts of the Constitution to the challenges faced by the nation.

Gideon’s Trumpet, the book Lewis wrote about the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, is still one of the greatest books ever to be written about the Supreme Court and the rule of law. I read it as a teenager and fell in love.

Clarence Earl Gideon is an unlikely hero. He was arrested in Florida in 1961 for breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny; someone broke into a pool hall and stole money from a register. A single witness reported seeing Gideon early that morning with a wine bottle and money.

At his trial, Gideon asked to be appointed counsel because he could not afford an attorney. But Florida law provided for no right to appointed counsel except in capital cases.

“The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel,” Gideon told the court. Actually, it had not. Gideon represented himself and was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

From the prison library, he wrote a “petition” to the Supreme Court asking it to review his case. Literally thousands of such petitions arrive at the court each year. In those days, petitions from people too poor to have lawyers and fancy binding were written on flimsy paper.

As Lewis told the story, a law clerk found the petition in the pile and brought it to the attention of his justice and the court. Gideon went from having no attorney at all to having Abe Fortas, one of the most powerful lawyers in Washington and later a member of the Supreme Court, and the esteemed firm of Arnold and Porter representing him.

March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, held that the states are bound by the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and reversed Gideon’s conviction. In the retrial, Gideon was represented by counsel. His lawyer eviscerated the testimony of the one witness against him, and the jury deliberated for only an hour before reaching a verdict of acquittal.

When, years later as a law clerk, I plowed through the endless piles of pro se cert petitions, I always thought of Gideon — and of Lewis’ story, which took what might have been a dry but important decision and gave it as much immediacy and life as the stories my father used to tell me of his least fortunate clients.

Gideon was, of course, only one of many cases Lewis covered in his years as the Supreme Court reporter for the Times and later in his columns. But it was in so many ways typical. Lewis (who was not a lawyer himself) understood more about how the Supreme Court worked than any of his contemporaries.

But equally important, he brought to his coverage of the “big” cases the power of the human drama: of the clients, the lawyers and the justices, of the place of law in a democracy and the capacity of the court to afford dignity and ensure fairness, not one person at a time but across the nation.

In doing so, Tony Lewis may have changed the lives of as many people as the decisions he wrote about. He certainly changed mine.

SUSAN ESTRICH’S column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.

 


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