Anthony Lewis RIP

It’s an accident of fate that one of America’s periodic uprisings of public interest in constitutional law happens to have coincided with the death of Anthony Lewis, who is universally understood as one of the great pioneers of mainstream constitutional journalism. At The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen offered one of many appropriate assessments:

The headline of the [New York Times] obit says that Lewis “transformed” coverage of the United States Supreme Court, and he did. But he did much more than that. He transformed coverage of the broader beat of the law, and he inspired generations of writers (and lawyers and judges, for that matter) to try to better explain and translate legal jargon into phrases and concepts that laypeople could more easily understand.

Lewis’ masterwork, Gideon’s Trumpet, was a piece of art for precisely this reason — word by word, simple sentence by simple sentence, he deconstructed the Sixth Amendment’s right to a fair trial, and murky Supreme Court procedure, and state law, and the insular world of Washington law firms, and all the other satellite topics that revolved around that seminal case.

I’d put it even more directly. If not for Lewis, and those who followed his example, the “popular” understanding of many of the great constitutional decisions of the Warren Court (Gideon included) would have never risen from the conservative demagoguery of “the judges taking the handcuffs off the criminal and putting them on the police,” which is mostly what I heard growing up. Journalism of the sort practiced by Lewis was a very difficult, but essential, endeavor, and those of us who defend the idea of a Constitution that provides a living testament to justice owe him a lot for our ability to speak and make sense.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.