Anthony Lewis dies at 85, a former New York Times reporter and columnist whose work won two Pulitzer Prizes and transformed American legal journalism, died on Monday at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
The cause was complications of renal and heart failure, said his wife, Margaret H. Marshall, a retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Mr. Lewis brought passionate engagement to his two great themes: justice and the role of the press in a democracy. His column, called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Times for more than 30 years, until 2001. His voice was liberal, learned, conversational and direct.
As a reporter, Mr. Lewis brought an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in 1963.
“He brought context to the law,” said Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington who compiled a bibliography of Mr. Lewis’s work. “He had an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”
Before Mr. Lewis started covering the Supreme Court, press reports on its decisions were apt to be pedestrian recitations by journalists without legal training, rarely examining the court’s reasoning or grappling with the context and consequences of particular rulings. Mr. Lewis’s thorough knowledge of the court’s work changed that. His articles were virtual tutorials about currents in legal thinking, written with ease and sweep and an ability to render complex matters accessible.
“There’s a kind of lucidity and directness to his prose,” said Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The Times. “You learned an awful lot of law just from reading Tony Lewis’s accounts of opinions.”
Mr. Lewis wrote several books, two of them classic accounts of landmark decisions of the Warren court, which he revered. Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969, corresponding almost precisely with Mr. Lewis’s years in Washington.
One of those books, “Gideon’s Trumpet,” concerned Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 decision that guaranteed lawyers to poor defendants charged with serious crimes. It has never been out of print since it was published in 1964.
“There must have been tens of thousands of college students who got it as a graduation gift before going off to law school,” said Yale Kamisar, an authority on criminal procedure who has taught at the University of Michigan and the University of San Diego.
In 1991, Mr. Lewis published “Make No Law,” an account of New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that revolutionized American libel law. The Sullivan case, applying First Amendment principles to state libel law for the first time, ruled that public officials suing critics of their official conduct had to prove that the contested statements were made with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge of their falsity or with serious subjective doubts about their truth.
Robert D. Sack, now a federal appeals court judge, said in a Times review that the book offered “a tour de force primer on the history of the First Amendment.”
Yet for all Mr. Lewis’s engagement with that Constitutional pillar, he parted company with many journalists on how far it should be used to protect them. He did not believe, for instance, that the First Amendment allows journalists to resist subpoenas for their confidential sources. Nor did he think that the amendment’s free-press clause entitles the institutional press to a special legal status.
Mr. Lewis’s coverage of the Warren court helped expand as well as explain its impact, Mr. Collins said.
“You cannot talk about the legacy of the Warren court and not talk about Tony Lewis,” he said. “He was just part and parcel of it. He was part of ushering in that constitutional revolution in civil rights and civil liberties from Brown v. Board of Education to Miranda v. Arizona.”
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