Academic journal article Missouri Law Review


Academic journal article Missouri Law Review


Article excerpt

It is often said that the rule of law is the cornerstone of a democracy, bringing many virtues to the challenging process of collective self-governance. (1) One of those qualities is notice to citizens of society's formal norms and expectations so they may guide their behavior accordingly.

However, this benefit can only be realized if those norms and expectations are actually communicated to the citizens. After all, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, what difference does it really make whether it makes a sound? (2)

So, too, with the law. In the United States, our constitutions, statutes, judicial opinions, administrative rules, and other forms of law may be written down for all to see and know and debate, but relatively few actually do. Similarly, our courts, legislatures, and administrative processes may be open and free to the public, but who has the time or bothers to attend, besides those with an immediate interest in the matter. (3)

Most people instead rely on others--especially the media--to keep them abreast of what they need to know about legal developments. This educational function is so important to the effective operation of democracy and the rule of law--facilitating broad public participation in its development--that the framers wisely enshrined and protected it in the First Amendment, (4) thus giving rise to what is often considered "The Fourth Estate." (5) As Felix Frankfurter once observed, "The public's confidence in the judiciary hinges on the public's perception of it, and that perception necessarily hinges on the media's portrayal of the legal system." (6)

In the modern era, few performed this function better than Anthony Lewis, the legendary U.S. Supreme Court reporter and columnist for The New York Times, who died in March 2013. (7) A pioneer in the coverage of law and the courts, Lewis is widely credited with being one of the founders of con temporary legal journalism. (8) Through a remarkable career that included two Pulitzer Prizes and five books, Lewis taught by example a generation of journalists how to cover the law with accuracy, insight, perspective, and passion. (9) While the law can often be dry and technical, and cases idiosyncratic, Lewis showed legal journalists how to communicate the issues to readers in a compelling way, demystifying the complexities of law, bringing out the practical importance of the seemingly arcane, and--perhaps most important--making readers care about the law and its role in the world around them.

This artistry is what readers saw on the pages of The Times. But his professional colleagues saw much more in the man behind the bylines. Lewis had a ferocious work ethic that fueled a powerful and penetrating intellect and a knack for being able to put pen to paper with ease. Moreover, in the brusque and highly competitive world of daily journalism, Lewis was the model of class--collegial with the old hands who covered the court and gracious to newcomers seeking his wisdom and blessing.

Lewis and the Court

Despite the relatively paltry salaries, journalists are generally a driven lot, compelled by ego, power, curiosity, and often a desire to make a difference in the world. Anthony Lewis was no different in this respect, other than perhaps by the source of his passion: several deeply held convictions that he appeared to live with every breath. First among them, Lewis believed in the fundamental worth of all people, regardless of color, class, or condition. Although he was not a lawyer by training, he also had a lawyer's faith in the law as a vehicle for assuring equality, human dignity, and basic civil rights for all, as well as an abiding trust that American democracy can work if everyone did their jobs in good faith, including the citizenry. Lewis brought his heart to the task as well, giving his writing a certain moral authority rarely seen in the ostensibly objective world of general interest journalism. …

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