Dahlia Lithwick sees the humor in high court
Covering the U.S. Supreme Court is pretty serious business—unless you’re Dahlia Lithwick, who sees no harm in having a little fun and being a little irreverent.
She’s covered SCOTUS for Slate for 17 years, and in those online pages she elucidated her philosophy of Muppet Theory, in which one is either a Chaos Muppet—think Cookie Monster or Justice Stephen Breyer—or an Order Muppet, like Bert or Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Samuel Alito has called her a hack, and Notorious RBG, who’s officially known as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has called her spicy, Lithwick says.
A recent Bloomberg article, “It’s OK to laugh at the Supreme Court,” credits Lithwick with turning the tide on humorless, high-minded reportage of the high court.
In New York magazine, she described the country’s top courtroom as where “nine tiny titans preside from a high bench,” and adds the justices “generally do everything in their power to reinforce the impression that the high court is an American oracle at Delphi, the closest thing this country has to a national church.”
She’s suggested President Obama nominee Merrick Garland do a George Costanza and just show up at the high court in October if the Senate hasn’t held a hearing for him by then. And her account of the recent Texas abortion hearing sounded like a WWE match, with “a group of testy male justices” on one side and “four absolutely smoking hot feminists pounding on Texas’ solicitor general” on the other.
“I had no journalism experience,” she admits of her Slate gig, which started in 1999. “I didn’t know anything about the court. I was willing to tell jokes and to admit my own stupidity.”
She was the first reporter for an online publication to get Supreme Court credentials. “It was a good moment for someone to do something different,” she says.
Her path didn’t seem destined to go that way. The Canadian-born Lithwick went to Yale and to Stanford Law School, and she clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Reno, where she picked up a blackjack habit. “I loved it there,” she says.
It was working for a firm that did divorce law that changed her course. “I almost had an ulcer dealing with people fighting over Tupperware,” she says. And she was thinking, “I’m not making the world a better place.”
Although she describes lawyers as risk averse, Lithwick quit her job, packed up her car and headed east to be a nanny for her niece. She was sleeping on the couch of an attorney friend in D.C. who got a call from Slate looking for someone to cover the Microsoft antitrust trial. “I didn’t know what an operating system was,” she says, and she had to quickly get up to speed on antitrust law.
And when it was over, Slate had itself a new Supreme Court reporter.
Lithwick’s path to Charlottesville was slightly less circuitous. She met her future husband, artist Aaron Fein, in 1999. (Fein’s “White Flags” installation will line the Downtown Mall during this year’s Tom Tom Founders Festival.) He was living in New York and she was living in Washington, just getting going with Slate. “This was our compromise,” she says. “I couldn’t live in New York and he couldn’t live in Washington.”
Being out of the capital has worked for her. “Now more than ever, I think you have to get out of D.C. to think about D.C.,” she says.
“One of the great things about covering the Supreme Court beat is there are hardly any surprises,” she says. Until you have the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and Obama’s nomination of Garland—just as Lithwick was getting on a plane to San Francisco, trying to write a piece on a laptop with a dead battery.
That was on a Friday. That Sunday, she flew to New York to do “literally four minutes on George Stephanopoulos,” she says. “This is one of the rare moments when the court really matters.”
Within minutes of appearing on Stephanopoulos’ show, her son’s principal at Charlottesville Day School sent her a text. Locally, she sees her niche as trying to explain the Supreme Court to people. “I talk to a lot of groups in town,” she says, including students at her kids’ schools. “I’m making the court visible,” she says. “That’s a nice thing.”
“She has real insight that enables her to see trends across the justices, across the cases and across the terms,” says her friend Risa Goluboff, UVA School of Law dean-elect.
And, of course, there’s her humor. “She’s kind of irreverent,” says Goluboff. “She’s willing to say things others may not say. I think this is healthy.” And Lithwick sees the justices as people with flaws, as well as with greatness, she says.
Goluboff’s favorite Lithwickian writing had not to do with the Supreme Court, but with a spate of bad weather in 2014. It was called “Goodnight Snow Days,” a “wickedly funny” parody of parental angst, “when you think, ‘How can I live through another snow day?’” says Goluboff.
After 17 years covering the Supremes, as well as hosting the podcast “Amicus,” writing for other publications, such as the New York Times and The Atlantic, appearing on multiple television shows and maintaining a crazy travel schedule, Lithwick, 48, admits she’s tired.
“I always said from the first day at Slate, the day Scalia dies is the day I leave because he was so fun to cover,” she says. “If you’re covering the court as a theater critic as I do, he was so like a diva.”
But it seems doubtful that heading back to a law practice is in her future. By her own admission, Lithwick makes pronouncements that she doesn’t follow through on, such as in 2008, when she “loudly declared” she’d become a U.S. citizen if Obama was elected president. (Her politics are no secret in her writing.)
At the Tom Tom Festival, she’ll be discussing exonerations and wrongful convictions with music exec/founding Innocence Project board member Jason Flom. “We’ll talk about innocence work and the extent to which the needle has moved by what they do,” she says. “To his deathbed, Scalia believed no one innocent was ever put to death.”
Now, she says, SCOTUS is making noise about the death penalty, and she directly credits the Innocence Project. “That’s hugely important,” she says. “That’s God’s work.”
WANT TO HEAR MORE?
As part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival, Dahlia Lithwick will be speaking on the Founders Summit luncheon panel for Exoneration as Innovation in Our Legal System from noon-1:45pm Friday, April 15, at Fleurie. At 2pm Friday, she will join Jason Flom, founder of Lava Records and founding board member of the Innocence Project, for a Founders Summit talk on Passion and Advocacy, at The Paramount Theater.
Dahlia Lithwick finds insights in children’s books and television shows for her coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Tom Tom Festival, now in its fifth year, is known as being a mecca for a variety of events, speakers and collaborations in the realms of art, innovation, food and music. But so much programming can be overwhelming to the average festival-goer, especially when your interests are diverse. Use C-VILLE’s Tom Tom Festival Survivor’s Guide to hone in on what exactly you want to do this week based on your mood, time commitment and what to do when you need a break from being around people (we’re looking at you, silent-discoers). For a list of all festival events, go to tomtomfest.com.
Founder of Crutchfield Corporation
Founders Summit keynote speaker, Friday, April 15
“Keeping the lights on” was the hardest aspect of founding Crutchfield Corporation, the Charlottesville-based national retailer specializing in electronics, says founder Bill Crutchfield. At 31 years old, he started the business of selling mail order audio equipment in his mother’s basement with only $1,000 in personal savings and a $20,000 bank loan.
“I quickly ran through both,” he says, adding that nothing about founding the electronics superstore was easy. Crutchfield advises young entrepreneurs to “be prepared for every possible worst-case scenario imaginable.”
As a former United States Air Force commander and Strategic Air Command senior instructor, Crutchfield has been an entrepreneur since 1974 and is now the president of a 500-employee enterprise that rakes in $250 million in annual revenue.
At the 2014 Tom Tom Founders Festival, Crutchfield was recognized as one of Charlottesville’s founders who has made a global impact, and in 2007, he was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Association’s Hall of Fame. Among many other distinctions, the business has earned BizRate’s Platinum Circle of Excellence Award for the past 16 years.
“In my darkest days, a retired CEO told me that I had all the qualities needed to succeed in business. I should not get discouraged and keep at it. I would eventually succeed,” Crutchfield says. “He was right.”
As for the future, Crutchfield is currently working on developing a 21st century business model, because, like most online and store retailers, he says his current model, from the late 20th century, is outdated. Some of the new strategies are already being implemented in his Charlottesville store.
Founder of hello products, eos and method
Founders Summit speaker, Friday, April 15
Craig Dubitsky is the face behind several brands touting all-natural ingredients that you can find in more than 20,000 stores—including big names such as hello products, eos and method. For him, founding healthy businesses is all about obsession.
Take hello products, for example. The vegan, Leaping Bunny-certified oral care line is a product of Dubitsky searching for a toothpaste in a department store and noticing the limited options when it came to healthy, safe ingredients and innovative design. For him, joining that $40 billion retail category with a fresh approach to a toothpaste was “less of a process and more about an awakening.”
“If you’re not whitening, you’re frightening,” is the tactic most oral hygiene brands take to sell their products, according to Dubitsky. “If your breath isn’t fresh, you’re not going to get the job. Your date is going to go poorly,” he adds. But the CEO had a different vision for hello products—he calls it thoughtfulness.
“I’d like to think as human beings we’re a little smarter than that now,” he says. “Thoughtful is the new black.”
Dubitsky’s campaign aims to end marketing that targets fear and shame while bringing personality, fun and naturalness to the oral hygiene category. He has introduced a line that makes people wonder why oral hygiene products were never created and packaged like his before, he says.
To his surprise, he’s received a lot of love.
“Luckily there are a lot of people waking up to the fact that this stuff is important and that oral health is directly and inexplicably linked to whole-body health,” he says, and encourages entrepreneurs to be patient and persistent with clientele. When he invented the sphere-shaped eos lip balms, he says countless people told him the world didn’t need another ChapStick. But he continued and created a balm that has been praised by stars such as Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears.
“You have to get people to believe and you can’t do that if you’re not wildly passionate,” he says.
As for the future of hello products? Says Dubitsky: “We think anything that’s fear or shame based is fair game for something new and beautiful.”
Founder of Designed by Lei
Youth Summit speaker, Thursday, April 14
UVA second-year LeiLei Secor opened an online jewelry shop in summer 2012. Just three years later, she averages between 50 and 60 sales a week, more than double that number during the holidays, and has made more than $100,000 in profit. And she does it all by herself.
“Since I run it on my own, I can pretty much do it whenever I have free time,” she says, adding that she usually spends five hours a week making jewelry and about 15 hours during the holidays. “The only hard deadline I have is the turnaround time to make each order. Other than that, I can work on my website, answer e-mails, edit pictures and add listings at 2am in my bed if I wanted to.”
Aside from her own website, Secor sells her products on Etsy, Shopify and Handmade at Amazon. Secor says keeping up with Etsy’s competitive jewelry market, changing search algorithms and taking on new competitors and trends are the hardest parts of running the business.
Juggling work, school and play is also challenging, but Secor says she learns more about managing and prioritizing her time as each semester passes.
“I think it’s helpful to have a list of things to do and prioritize them. I set aside time every week, as if it were a regular job,” she says. “I’ve also learned to multitask, so my idea of a Netflix break consists of splitting my screen between my orders and Netflix while making jewelry.”
Funnily enough, Secor doesn’t wear too much of her own artwork.
“I’m not a ring person, even though rings are what I sell primarily,” she says. “I think I have maybe worn a ring in public once or twice.” But now that she’s added necklaces and earrings to her inventory, she says she’ll slip them on from time to time. Her friends always ask if she’s wearing something she made.
“My best advice to other student entrepreneurs would be to truly invest yourself in your idea, because if you’re not ready to do that then it will just seem like a burdensome job,” she says.
THE LAST WORDS
What’s the greatest invention?
Crutchfield: The wheel
Dubitsky: The question mark
Secor: The Internet
If you could have dinner with anyone alive today, who would it be?
Crutchfield: Elon Musk
Dubitsky: My family
Secor: Kendra Scott
What did you want to be when you were younger?
Dubitsky: Astronaut architect
Secor: Fashion designer
Describe your business in one word.
Founder of Ice Axe Expeditions
Founders Summit speaker, Friday, April 15
Doug Stoup is an adventurer, to say the least. Founder of Ice Axe Expeditions, he’s been skiing at the North and South Poles for 20 years, leads expeditions to remote places including inside Chilean volcanoes and streams live video into classrooms from his treks to educate students about the places he visits.
The turning point in his life came in 1999, when was part of a team that performed the first ski and snowboard descent of Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. He fell in love with the continent from the first moment, and has visited it 38 times. Currently he leads about 120 skiers to Antarctica every year on touring expeditions.
Stoup was the first American to ski from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, and he performed a test run there of his ice bike in 2003, which Time magazine named one of the best inventions of the year.
He calls the continent “pristine and clean” and wants it to stay that way—he performs data collection for climate change scientists during his expeditions.
“I want to find out what’s going on,” he says. “We’re polluting our planet and I want to help solve this problem. Kids’ lives will be affected by this.”
Stoup also founded the Ice Axe Foundation, which partners with schools, scientists and research organizations to allow students from around the world to participate in interactive leaning experiences. Students who go on these trips learn how to write scripts, edit and shoot video, and they interact with their peers live from places such as the Amazon.
Stoup will speak about his experience as a polar adventurer and climate change ambassador from noon-1:45pm Friday, April 15, at the Environmental Entrepreneurs luncheon at Red Pump, followed by a Founders Summit “Creativity and Ideation” talk at 3pm with Rodney Mullen and Becca McCharen.