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Posts Tagged ‘law’

In Session

May 13, 2013 | by

Back-cover photo from the author's first edition copy of Gideon's Trumpet

Back-cover photo from the author’s first-edition copy of Gideon’s Trumpet.

In the late 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court was as controversial and obscure as it had ever been. Little understood in the best of times, it had recently outlawed segregated schools over the objections of Southern states and expanded protections for criminal suspects—protections that Congress was already scheming to revoke. More than ever, the public needed the press to explain the workings of the court. But the newspapermen of the day were barely equipped for the task: they lacked the legal expertise to properly interpret a Supreme Court opinion, if they ever read one, and wire-service reporters habitually wrote their stories on the court’s opinions before they were even issued.

Yet while the justices resented being portrayed as “a mysterious body operating behind a veil of secrecy,” as Chief Justice Earl Warren once grumbled, they made little effort to communicate with the public. They generally refused to speak to the press, and until the 1920s, they delayed the distribution of printed copies of their opinions, forcing even the most diligent reporters to base their stories on a single hearing of the opinion from the bench. (And CNN and Fox News know how accurate first impressions can be.) “All of official Washington except the Supreme Court is acutely conscious of public relations,” wrote the New York Times’s Supreme Court correspondent Anthony Lewis in 1959. “The Supreme Court is about as oblivious as it is conceivable to be.”

Lewis was thirty years old in 1957 when it fell to him to justify the ways of the Supreme Court to men. A Harvard graduate who had already won a Pulitzer for national reporting, Lewis was hired by the Times’s Washington bureau chief Scotty Reston, who hoped to improve the paper’s coverage of the court. To do the job right, Lewis would need training, so Reston sent him back to Harvard on a one-year fellowship at the law school. Lewis would have made his mark simply by learning enough to parse opinions and report them. But he went further, writing eloquent articles that teased out larger truths from legal minutiae. Professorial by nature, Lewis treated newspaper readers to a continuing legal seminar over their morning coffee. After Lewis died this past March, at the age of eighty-five, he was eulogized as having transformed American legal journalism. Read More »

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Star Tracks: Or, a Trip to the LSATs

December 3, 2012 | by

Like many, I devoted to the recent Petraeus affair only the attention required to make a quip or two. Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley (already it’s a struggle to remember their names) didn’t linger long in my consciousness as actual people; quickly they became the naughty biographer and Tampa’s answer to Kim Kardashian, respectively. When processing a scandal, the mind makes remarkably fluid conversions from human being to character, and character to joke. Much more difficult is reversing this thinking, as I discovered the day I took a standardized test while seated next to Monica Lewinsky.

This was the fall of 2002—I was twenty-one, living in Brooklyn, and looking to escape the confusion of postcollege life. When I registered to take the law school admissions test at NYU that December, it felt less like choosing a career than like tossing a grappling hook out into the dark, hoping to catch hold of a stable future. Though public interest law seemed a perfectly appropriate path for someone raised on Pacifica Radio and political demonstrations, and though as a kid I’d logged countless hours watching the William Kennedy Smith and O. J. Simpson trials, I had neither an intellectual interest in the law nor any practical understanding of what lawyers did. Something about “briefs,” it seemed.

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