Nathan Lewin helped prosecute Jimmy Hoffa. Now in practice with his daughter, he’s a Supreme Court regular and a top litigator for Jewish causes
Originally, Lewin expected a relatively quiet pursuit. “If you’d asked me when I was at Harvard Law School would I be a criminal defense lawyer,” Lewin said, “I’d have said you were crazy.” Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1936, he fled east with his parents and arrived in the United States via Japan. In New York, he enrolled at Yeshiva University High School, where he was valedictorian. Lewin went on to earn an undergraduate degree at Yeshiva before heading to Harvard Law, where he graduated alongside Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis—the last Democratic presidential nominee Lewin is sure he voted for, though he remains a registered Democrat. “It was the least I could do for a classmate,” he explained. Scalia, he added, is a personal friend from their days on the Law Review, but the justice doesn’t do any favors for former classmates appearing before his bench. “In fact,” Lewin said, “in the first case in the District of Columbia District Court in which I drew him, he not only rejected my argument, but went out of his way to mention another argument I could have used, and explained why he would have rejected that, too.”
After Harvard, Lewin clerked on the Supreme Court, for Justice John Harlan. He initially promised his wife, Rikki, they could return to New York after his clerkship was over, but instead Lewin went to work for the Justice Department, under Robert Kennedy, and Rikki Lewin eventually became a photo editor at the Washington Jewish Week. Lewin fell in love with the courtroom while he worked on the government’s case against union leader Jimmy Hoffa, and after Hoffa’s first trial ended in Tennessee, Lewin went to work in the Solicitor General’s office, which represents the government before the Supreme Court, under Archibald Cox and, later, Thurgood Marshall. Lewin’s first argument before the Supreme Court was a tax case; he won it but describes it as “a nightmare.” By 1966, he had learned enough to successfully present the government’s argument for using informants to make its case against Hoffa—one of the most-watched cases of the era.
When we met, the case Lewin was most interested in discussing wasn’t the looming Zivotofsky proceeding, but his decade-old fight to win compensation for victims of terrorism from U.S.-based charities found to provide financial support to terrorist groups. The case was filed on behalf of Stanley and Joyce Boim, Americans whose son, David, was killed at a West Bank bus stop in 1996 by Hamas terrorists. The timing turned out to be propitious. “Our first argument was scheduled for Sept. 24, 2001, in Chicago,” Lewin recounted. “And it became apparent after September 11th that this would not just be a case about the Boims and Palestinian-backed terrorism.” Lewin eventually won a $156 million judgment against the Quranic Literacy Institute and the American Muslim Society on the grounds that they had, through a third group, helped underwrite Hamas terrorism.
“I don’t think there’s any Jewish issue that doesn’t have my father’s fingerprints on it,” Alyza Lewin told me. She sat next to her father, their similarities showing in their mannerisms—talking in quick, confident bursts, leaning forward to make points—more than their looks: Alyza is lanky where her father is burly; she wore sensible Washington pearls and a gray pantsuit rather than echoing her father’s fondness for colorful shirts. A mother of four in her mid-forties, Alyza Lewin went to Princeton and then NYU Law School and then worked at the white-shoe firm Wilmer Hale in Washington before joining her father in practice, first at his former firm, Miller Cassidy Larroca and Lewin, and then in their new enterprise. (Her younger sister, Na’ama, followed their mother into photography.) “I grew up hearing my father talk about the cases he had, and people told me I had a warped view of the legal profession, because my father had a disproportionate number of interesting cases,” she said. “So, it was important to me to establish myself as a lawyer in my own right.”
Nathan Lewin described Alyza as his managing partner—“a master at dealing with clients, negotiating settlements”—whereas his role is to be the courtroom pugilist. (To demonstrate, he punched the empty air in front of him.) Their relationship is obviously close, and their father-daughter shtick is well-practiced: When Nathan Lewin recounted his daughter’s announcement that she’d followed his advice to take college courses she was interested in by signing up for a bartending course, she rolled her eyes and exclaimed, “There was no class in bartending!” It was, she said, a workshop offered by an eating club, which she took in order to graduate from ordering virgin piña coladas to more sophisticated drinks on dates. As she explained, her father grinned.
Alyza Lewin said that when she told her friends she planned to go into practice with her father, they warned her that he would second-guess her work. She said, a little ruefully, that he’d been reviewing her papers since she was in high school. She is clearly proud to work in his shadow, specifically mentioning her father’s work as AIPAC’s counsel during the government’s investigation of Steve Rosen, the group’s former foreign-policy director, who was indicted in 2005 on charges of violating the Espionage Act. (The charges were dropped in 2009.) “He is the go-to in Washington,” Alyza Lewin said. “He had to advise AIPAC to let these employees go for conduct, without telling them why, and there is no other lawyer in the Jewish community who has that standing.” AIPAC’s general counsel, Phil Friedman, concurred, saying in an emailed statement: “Nat Lewin is a person of integrity with a deep knowledge of the law and an exceptional sense of fairness and decency.”
“My goal,” Alyza Lewin explained, “was to create a vehicle for my father to practice law the way he wants to.” Her father quickly interjected, “We complement each other, not just with an ‘I’ but with an ‘E.’ ”
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