Inspiration in Times of Desperation: A Review of Dahlia Lithwick's "Lady Justice"

 By Eric Segall

These are trying, scary, and dangerous times for the American left. Despite Democrats having control of both Houses of Congress and the Presidency, there is so much for people committed to gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and democracy to worry about. The Supreme Court ended abortion rights and enlarged gun rights last term, and this year will likely prohibit all affirmative action, further narrow the Voting Rights Act, and continue to privilege religion over virtually all other values. Additionally, the Court may rule that state legislatures engaged in voter suppression and partisan redistricting cannot be controlled by either state supreme courts or state governors. At the same time, large red states such as Florida and Texas have governors who lead in a Trumpian style, except with more political sophistication. In short, as Neil Buchannan has documented on this blog, our country is in real trouble.

In the face of these dire threats, SLATE columnist and Supreme Court reporter Dahlia Lithwick's new book Lady Justice: Women, The Law, and the Battle to Save America, provides glimmers of hope as well as inspiring tales of remarkable women who fought the good fights during the Trump Presidency. Sandwiched between an Introduction and an Epilogue are the stories of numerous women who took on the Trump Administration in the courts, in the streets, and in the halls of government.

Lithwick is one of the best political writers of our generation, so she tells the tales with a flourish and a style that makes the book enjoyable and accessible. This is a book for everyone, not just readers interested in politics and law. Her progressive perspective does come through in every chapter, so conservatives and Trumpians might be offended by the narrative, but, and this wish I know is mostly fanciful, folks on the right could do much worse than expose themselves to the remarkable women who come alive for us in this book.

Lithwick doesn't pull punches when it comes to the precarious position we are in because of the rise of Donald Trump. She begins the book with the oral argument in the abortion case Whole Women's Health in 2016, when the three female Justices dominated the oral arguments and "we really could see gender equality from our back porches." But four months later, "we would all hear with our own ears" Trump's "grab women by the p#ssy" comments and then "we learned that the only consequence for such an admission would be a promotion to the Oval Office." And just like that, "gender equality was gone." Chants of "lock her up" echoed repeatedly during the campaign and afterwards and not just at Hillary Clinton. 

This narrative paves the way for Lithwick to document the amazing women who did not back away from the fight during the Trump years. Immediately after he took office, Trump signed the infamous Muslim travel ban. Lithwick tells the tale of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who refused to defend the ban and was fired for it, as well as Becca Heller, who organized an army of lawyers in a short period of time to show up at airports across the country the night the ban went into effect. These lawyers persuaded several courts to put the ban on hold until eventually a divided Supreme Court upheld a watered down version of the ban. Both Yates and Heller are fascinating and courageous women, and Lithwick tells their biographies with flair and grace. 

Chapter 4 tells the story of the horrible and tragic White Christian Nationalist march through Charlottesville and Robbie Kaplan, the lawyer who eventually used federal law to obtain large civil suits against some of the marchers. Kaplan was also the attorney, a few years before, who successfully sued the federal government over the Defense of Marriage Act. Lithwick describes Kaplan as someone who "doesn't come across as 'scary smart' until she opens her mouth. That's when you see her doing three-dimensional jujitsu that can't always be followed by even a seasoned legal reporter." Lithwick has a talent for making all the women she discusses in the book jump off the page as if the reader is standing next to them in the same room.

Lithwick and her family lived in Charlottesville during that time. Some of the most powerful passages in the book involve incidents that the author experienced first-hand. Lithwick writes the following about the march:

Years later, when I told people that I felt bad for personally failing to take to the streets to protect the anti-racist counter protesters who stood up to white supremacists on August 12, I included the story about frantic calls to my big brother while I sobbed that there were Nazis parked on my sleepy residential street, and how I should have been out there slashing tires and punching fascists.

The rest of the book tells the stories of remarkable women doing remarkable things during Trump's Presidency: Brigette Amiri, who fought the Trump administration to secure an abortion for a migrant teenager; Vanita Gupta, "the civil rights lawyer," who helped turn back Trump's racist efforts to add a citizenship question to the census and did what she could to oppose the Brett Kavanaugh nomination; the courageous former law clerks to Federal Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, who came out publicly with stories of sexual harassment that led to his resignation; Christine Blasey Ford who accused Kavanaugh of sexually attacking her in high school (that Chapter also discusses Anita Hill and her allegations concerning Clarence Thomas); Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor in Georgia in 2018 and lost but then built several organizations devoted to securing fair elections and registering people to vote, resulting in Georgia voting for Biden in 2020 and sending two Democrats to the Senate, which changed the balance of power there; and finally Nina Perales, who brought and brings voting rights litigation on behalf of minorities whom the Republican Party both before and after Trump has tried to keep out of the voting booth.

Lithwick tells these stories with the great insight that sometimes fights that are destined to lose are still worth having so that the road is paved for future victories. But the most successful element of the book is that Lithwick makes the reader feel as if he or she really know these remarkable women. About Stacey Abrans she says, "Nobody would have guessed that one of the most transformational political figures of the Trump years would be . . . a Black female tax lawyer, voting rights activist/litigator, and organizer who is also a romance novelist and who ran for Governor in Georgia in 2018."

Despite these inspiring tales of women who fought misogyny and discrimination at every turn, Lithwick does not back away from what difficult fights lie ahead. She acknowledges that "in many ways, the rule of law feels more fragile in 2022 than it seemed during the Trump years." But "women plus law equals magic; we prove that every day. And bearing witness to what it can and will achieve has been the greatest privilege of my lifetime." Reading this book, for me at least, was also a great privilege and a large and needed dose of inspiration in times of desperation.