Keen Court Observer
'I WAS probably made to be a lawyer; it just didn't turn out that way," says Anthony Lewis, whose book on a landmark United States Supreme Court decision [see accompanying review] confirms that he has become an accomplished legal scribe instead.By nature, Mr. Lewis considers himself a "daily journalist" well-suited to his regular task of turning out a twice-weekly column for the New York Times, not to producing hardcover tomes. Journalism, Lewis was convinced, was his calling in life when he graduated from Harvard College in 1948. He spent four years with the Sunday department of the Times and another three with the Washington Daily News, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the federal loyalty-security program. "I tended to write about what today would be called human rights, although that term wasn't in vogue then, matters where underdogs were being tromped on by those who held power," he recalls. His instincts in this area caught the attention of James Reston, Washington bureau chief of the Times, to which Lewis returned in 1955. Reston asked Lewis if he'd like to cover the Supreme Court, and from 1957 to 1964 he did after first spending a year at the Harvard Law School prepping for the assignment. He became a pioneer in the process, and a successful one at that, winning another Pulitzer. "I was probably the first to try to make ... a regular thing out of it [reporting on the court]," he says. "I covered the court very intensely and summarized everything it did one way or another. Today many people do that. It's a much more thoughtfully covered beat than it used to be." While the beat may be better established, Lewis suspects it may be no more alluring to reporters than when he started. "It's so remote and ivory tower," he says of the atmosphere surrounding the Supreme Court. "You hardly ever get to see the people you cover. You don't chum around with judges the way you do with senators or even presidents." But Lewis says that over time he developed a friendly acquaintanceship with a number of the justices. One of the more satisfying was with Hugo L. Black Sr., a former senator from Alabama, whose kindness to Lewis was untarnished by his negative feelings toward the New York Times. As Lewis tells it, another newspaper reported that Black had been a Ku Klux Klan member many years before his 1937 appointment to the Supreme Court. The report, which Black attempted to downplay, caused a tremendous uproar, and in an editorial calling for his resignation the Times wrote: "Whenever we look up at this once-revered bench we will see among the figures in black robes one hooded in white." "That was pretty rough, and he never forgave us," Lewis says, respectfully adding that Black's life proved what he claimed, that he held no prejudices. Lewis has always treated the Supreme Court with a "sort of worshipful respect," an attitude he maintained even after his "beat" days ended and he took up various other journalistic and college-teaching endeavors, including lecturer on law at Harvard and Columbia universities. "I never thought it proper of me to ask [the justices] about a pending case. I think today's journalists would try to do that. I don't think they'd get anywhere, but they'd try. It's a different generation." The work of a Supreme Court reporter, Lewis says, is largely a paper chase, spent reading and digesting the voluminous number of petitions, briefs, and court opinions. To gauge a jurist's work is difficult, he adds, because it is compiled behind closed doors, where the major contributions of others are unseen. This could at least temporarily shield a new justice. Lewis considers Clarence Thomas unqualifed for the high court because "he has never had any significant legal experience of any kind.The Supreme Court has on the whole not been a respository of the greatest legal brains in the US," Lewis says, "but I think it will make it harder for the other members of the court if Thomas is not really up to the job." Coming to grips with the job is a challenge even under ideal circumstances, he adds, explaining that some justices have said it "takes five years to get into the thing." The most profound opinions of the court can take years to crystalize, and then only when a case or group of similar cases forces the issue. He discovered this when researching First Amendment decisions for his book, the publication of which coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Lewis says the first case won in the court claiming protection under the free speech and press clauses didn't occur until about 1930 and the "modern footing" for those clauses wasn't established until 1964 in the Sullivan libel case, which "Make No Law" examines.