Anthony Lewis, who passed away this week, has been rightly lionized for his fierce commitment to justice and freedom, and for his passion for the United States Constitution as a vital and living document.
Yet what made him such a great writer and observer of law and politics was his keen understanding of the contingencies of the human condition. Law for Tony Lewis was neither a distant abstraction nor an impersonal scripture carved in granite. It was always embodied in individual men and women, where passion and reason and circumstance are inevitably intertwined.
So perhaps it is no surprise that the last words of the last public appearance of this extraordinary man reflect his wry sense of the human.
As it happens, that appearance came at an event that we hosted at Brandeis University on March 18 2013, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.
Before Gideon, if you were charged with a felony in many states in the U.S. and you could not afford a lawyer, you were out of luck. You represented yourself, cross-examined witnesses, and matched wits with a professional prosecutor as best you could. In the Gideon judgment, the Supreme Court reversed its own previous jurisprudence and ordered states to provide an attorney in those situations.
Tony Lewis’s account of that case, Gideon’s Trumpet, has become one of the classics of American non-fiction. At the Brandeis event, Lewis spoke about his passion for the case, which originated with a handwritten petition sent to the United States Supreme Court by an inmate in a Florida prison. And he dwelled on the characters of the key protagonists: Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the unanimous opinion, Abe Fortas, who argued for the plaintiff at the Supreme Court, and Clarence Earl Gideon himself.
The Gideon case enshrined a legal right, but its implementation 50 years later has been far from perfect. This was the conclusion of the discussion between Lewis and the other panelists: Bill Leahy, who has led statewide public defender offices in Massachusetts and New York; Margot Botsford, a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and Fred Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University and himself a former federal prosecutor. Underfunded public defenders offices and mandatory sentencing laws, among other factors, have undermined the right to counsel for poor defendants, many of them African American.
Nevertheless, in his closing comments, Tony Lewis reverted to what he called the “romantic nature” of Gideon. His thoughts on the fortuitous aspects of the case, his continuing call for action, and a humorous anecdote, perfectly capture his wise, idealistic, and authentic spirit.