Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin

By Etheridge, Bryant | The Journal of Southern History, May 2017 | Go to article overview

Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin


Etheridge, Bryant, The Journal of Southern History


Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin. By Marlene Trestman. Southern Biography. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. Pp. xx, 243. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-6208-8.)

In 1913. at age four, Bessie Margolin entered an orphanage for Jewish children in New Orleans. Thirty-two years later Margolin argued her first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Linking those two moments and connecting them to the distinguished legal career that followed Margolin's Supreme Court debut is the task undertaken by biographer Mariene Trestman. Trestman, an attorney and legal scholar, has written this biography in part for personal reasons; Trestman grew up in the same New Orleans orphanage, and Margolin mentored Trestman early in her legal career.

After her graduation from Yale Law School in 1933, Margolin's career unfolded within an expanding federal regulatory state. Thwarted by sex discrimination from teaching law, Margolin entered government service as an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). During six years at the TVA offices in Knoxville, Margolin was part of a team that effectively defended the agency from its many powerful opponents, especially southern electric companies. In 1939 Margolin left both Knoxville and the TVA to take a job working for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. Margolin spent thirty-two years at the Department of Labor, interrupted only by several months in Germany in 1946 during which she developed the legal standards for tribunals used to try thousands of Nazi war criminals. As a senior attorney at the Department of Labor. Margolin and her staff fought a long, hard, and remarkably successful battle to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in thousands of workplaces across the country. In a series of landmark Supreme Court cases, her advocacy helped expand coverage of the FLSA to workers who otherwise would have been excluded altogether and to make more generous the benefits it provided to workers already covered.

After spending a quarter century litigating the scope of the FLSA, Margolin devoted the final decade of her Department of Labor career to enforcing the Equal Pay Act of 1963. …

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