Journalist Anthony Lewis Credited With Reinventing Supreme Court Reporting

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Former New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis died Monday at the age of 85. Lewis's work covering the Supreme Court earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.


Finally this hour, we remember an eminent journalist. Anthony Lewis was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He died today of heart and renal failure at age 85. As we hear from NPR's David Folkenflik, Lewis will be remembered for reinventing coverage of the Supreme Court and for his advocacy of civil rights and civil liberties as a New York Times columnist.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Just after his retirement, Anthony Lewis spoke with NPR about his days as a young reporter at the Washington Daily News and a story he wrote about a Navy employee stripped of clearance.


ANTHONY LEWIS: And he was fired without any real chance to defend himself because you can't defend yourself against unknown charges by unknown people. And eventually, because there was an assistant secretary of the Navy, James H. Smith, who had some guts, he took it back and gave Abe Chazinow back his job. So it was a rare victory for justice.

NEAL CONAN, BYLINE: And a Pulitzer Prize for you.

LEWIS: As it turned out.

FOLKENFLIK: Lewis jumped to The New York Times where he soon covered the U.S. Supreme Court.

WALTER DELLINGER: Lewis understood the role of the court in American life, politics and history better than most.

FOLKENFLIK: Washington lawyer Walter Dellinger is a former acting U.S. solicitor general who's argued more than 20 cases before the Supreme Court.

DELLINGER: So while he got the details right, he also understood the larger context in which the court was operating.

FOLKENFLIK: Lewis wrote two highly influential books. "Gideon's Trumpet" examined the life of Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida drifter tried, imprisoned and convicted of breaking into a pool hall without the benefit of a lawyer. The case established the right to legal representation regardless of ability to pay. Another Lewis book explored the First Amendment through a libel suit filed by the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, against The New York Times. The paper prevailed. Again, Walter Dellinger.

DELLINGER: Before Lewis' "Make No Law" was written, people didn't understand the real threat that the Deep South was going to shut down coverage of the civil rights movement by libel suits against the press.

FOLKENFLIK: For 30 years, Lewis' column returned repeatedly to injustice and the law, both in the U.S. and abroad, with a liberal outlook and a lucidity that won admirers even among those who disagreed. Again, the late Anthony Lewis.


LEWIS: Mostly, my column was serious and often critical of institutions and countries and leaders, but, you know, I've had a wonderful time in journalism. And I'd just like to say what a great profession I think it is. It's got some marvelous people in it, and you get a chance to meet those few who really provide leadership. They make the difference in a country, I think.

FOLKENFLIK: He is survived by his wife, the former chief justice of Massachusetts, and by his three children and seven grandchildren. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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