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