Justice, Women and the Law

Dahlia Lithwick is one of the nation’s most influential law commentators. Active across many publications and platforms, Lithwick is probably best known for her ongoing attention to the Supreme Court. She writes, presents, comments, and teaches with rigor and passion.

In 2022, Lithwick wrote Lady Justice: Women, The Law, and the Battle to Save America. Through a series of sharp biographical studies, Lithwick’s best-selling book examines the massive changes in women’s rights from the latter part of the Obama presidency through the Trump administration. It’s a story of rights being curtailed, denied, changed and re-evaluated – and the immense effort to push back and secure those rights by women lawyers. The book is a reminder of just how contentious the last six years have been. Lithwick zeroes in on a number of battles – at airports, in courtrooms, in the media and in demonstrations – and the tremendous trauma and costs. Many of these incidents are familiar, if only through the headlines at the time. Lithwick’s book gives context, broader legal understanding, and highlights the women attorneys who throughout found strength, strategy and alliances to fight for women’s rights. The book is encouraging and cautionary.

The women who emerge in Lithwick’s study are described with care and consideration. While we may have first heard about them through the media in times of drama, when they were often reduced to stereotypes and sound bites, in Lady Justice they emerge as complete human beings. Lithwick stresses that these women came from different backgrounds, with different agendas and ways of describing the law. What they share is a belief that law could provide structure. Its very rules would permit agency, a meaningful career, and the potential to make a difference.

Lithwick’s attorneys include Sally Yates, who was the US Attorney General at the end of the Obama administration and who was fired by President Trump when refused to implement the Trump administration’s executive order barring Muslims from entering the US. Yates, who is very much a believer in institutional stability, as Lithwick emphasizes, refused to act on an order she believed was unconstitutional. Becca Heller, who fought the Muslim ban as an attorney, has less faith in the system. Nevertheless, she played an instrumental role in organizing grass roots legal defense of immigrants at airports throughout the nation when the Trump Executive Order was implemented. The organization she founded, the International Refugee Assistance Project, continues to have an impact today. Although it took time, Yates and Heller’s legal arguments eventually were endorsed by the courts.

The courts also vindicated attorney Robbie Kaplan, who went after the Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists on behalf of the people they harmed. Kaplan had earlier played a leading role in securing the rights of homosexuals to marry. Brigitte Amiri, who has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights for decades with the ACLU, worked tirelessly on behalf of a pregnant teenager held at the border during the Trump administration. The young woman sought an abortion and the US government prevented it until Amiri’s arguments prevailed. Lithwick also looks at Vanita Gupta, who has a career advocating for civil rights, and Stacey Abrams, who has made the expansion of voting rights a priority.

Lithwick also talks about her own experiences with Judge Alex Kozinski, who sat on the US Court of Appeals. An influential jurist whose clerks often became judges, Kozinski was well-known in legal circles for his abuse and sexist behavior. When enough women and complaints came forward to seem to force accountability, Kozinski retired. One of his clerks, Brett Kavanaugh, claimed ignorance of his behavior during his confirmation to the Supreme Court. In these sections, Lithwick’s pain and anger at misogyny and blatant unfairness in top legal circles comes through loud and clear.

Despite that anger, Lithwick’s message is still ultimately about the importance of faith in process. She has belief in the law as a place for order and orderly change. Better arguments, over time, will win. The histories in the book reinforce the law’s slow and irregular move towards inclusivity and justice. It may be political, but it is not partisan. Tempering Lithwick’s optimism though, is that the legal system can be unduly influenced by partisan politics. Without process and care, the law can become a tool of repression. What I found most inspirational in Lady Justice was the immense heroism of these attorneys, their willingness to go above and beyond in pursuit of their clients and justice. Though perhaps not household names today, their efforts are what makes our democracy function. We are a national of laws. These attorneys, and Lithwick’s book, are most deserving of our time and appreciation.

David Potash