A Courts Reporter Offers Lessons in Humanity

Some people you have never met become a more important part of your lives than some people you know, and influence what you think about events that those people may never have thought about.

From the moment I became interested in writing and politics, two New York Times columnists were must-reads: Russell Baker, whose humor columns often were too wise and knowing to be funny, and Anthony Lewis, who wrote mostly about foreign affairs and constitutional issues because those were his main interests. Lewis died March 24, three days before his 86th birthday. His work teaches us—humans, yes, including Nevadans—some valuable lessons.

One is how little we know about the law and courts. When Lewis started covering the Supreme Court, The Times sent him to Harvard to study law. After he returned, one of the justices said Lewis could explain the cases better than his colleagues could. Lewis’s work influenced other media to cover the highest court more thoroughly and knowledgeably.

In Nevada, we haven’t been so blessed. Some reporters covering the courts have done fine
work. But they remain undercovered, as so much of Nevada is. We know little of what really goes on and how the judicial system here works and doesn’t work. We may hear about exciting criminal trials or judges who have been reprimanded for misbehavior, but not the ins and outs of the courts and the cases. Then we vote on whether to elect judges, and do so according to whether the name looks familiar or we like the candidate’s appearance. The media needs to do a better job, but so do the voters.

Another lesson is about labels and the stupidity of them. Many readers considered Lewis the most liberal writer appearing in a major newspaper (setting aside lefty magazines and other publications). Lewis told Nation columnist Eric Alterman for his history of
punditry, Sound and Fury, “It’s absolutely hilarious to me …. I’m a pro-capitalist, middle-of-the-road, tepid centrist. I mean, is it left to insist that presidents and CIA directors adhere to the law? I don’t think so. I think it’s American.” Don’t you feel that way? Is that liberal?

At the state legislature, State Senators Tick Segerblom and Pat Spearman were two of the lead sponsors (along with several others in both houses) of a resolution supporting repeal of Nevada’s hypocritical ban on gay marriage (beyond the ban being bigoted, how can Nevada claim the moral high ground on anything?). Their colleague Michael Roberson said he finds it hard to justify different treatment of people on the basis of sexual orientation, and Ben Kieckhefer said something similar.

Let’s talk about labels. Segerblom and Spearman may be the two most liberal members of the state senate. Roberson is that chamber’s Republican leader, and Kieckhefer is a Republican who once worked for former Governor Jim Gibbons, who is to the political right of Attila the Hun. They seem to be agreeing with one another. Does that make them liberal or conservative, or just humans doing the correct thing?

Lewis also taught us about the Bill of Rights. He did this through more than 30 years of columns, a decade of reporting on the court, two decades of teaching at law schools and three excellent books: Gideon’s Trumpet, about the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel; Make No Law, about First Amendment libel law; and Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, about that pesky amendment. We tend to forget that those rights didn’t all apply at the state level, that some of them still don’t, and that the Bill of Rights itself can be contradictory (If you doubt that, does freedom of the press ever interfere with the right to due process? You bet it can).

Are those rights absolute, as some contend today at the mere notion of keeping an AK-47 out of the hands of the clinically insane? No, Lewis said. The First Amendment didn’t, he said, give the press a “preferred position” of protection for, say, protecting sources. That’s another lesson from Lewis: although he seemed dogmatic in his writing, he also understood nuance and shades of gray.

On his death, other reporters talked about how helpful and supportive and kindly he always was. The Supreme Court’s greatest liberal, William O. Douglas, once was described as loving humanity but having no use for people. Anthony Lewis loved both, and wrote about them in clear prose. Everybody can learn from that.