- Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolinby Marlene Trestman
In 1913, at age four, Bessie Margolin entered an orphanage for Jewish children in New Orleans. Thirty-two years later Margolin argued her first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Linking those two moments and connecting them to the distinguished legal career that followed Margolin's Supreme Court debut is the task undertaken by biographer Marlene Trestman. Trestman, an attorney and legal scholar, has written this biography in part for personal reasons; Trestman grew up in the same New Orleans orphanage, and Margolin mentored Trestman early in her legal career.
After her graduation from Yale Law School in 1933, Margolin's career unfolded within an expanding federal regulatory state. Thwarted by sex discrimination from teaching law, Margolin entered government service as an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). During six years at the TVA offices in Knoxville, Margolin was part of a team that effectively defended the agency from its many powerful opponents, especially southern electric companies. In 1939 Margolin left both Knoxville and the TVA to take a job working for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. Margolin spent thirty-two years at the Department of Labor, interrupted only by several months in Germany in 1946 during which she developed the legal standards for tribunals used to try thousands of Nazi war criminals. As a senior attorney at the Department of Labor, Margolin and her staff fought a long, hard, and remarkably successful battle to enforce the Fair Labor [End Page 467]Standards Act (FLSA) in thousands of workplaces across the country. In a series of landmark Supreme Court cases, her advocacy helped expand coverage of the FLSA to workers who otherwise would have been excluded altogether and to make more generous the benefits it provided to workers already covered.
After spending a quarter century litigating the scope of the FLSA, Margolin devoted the final decade of her Department of Labor career to enforcing the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Notwithstanding that work and her role in the founding of the National Organization for Women, Trestman carefully puts distance between Margolin and the emerging feminist movement, at one point describing her as a "reluctant feminist" (p. 163). What emerges from Trestman's account is a portrait of a woman uninterested in being described as a feminist, but not at all reluctant in pursuing goals associated with feminism.
The professional and social worlds of federal judges and attorneys constantly intersected, and Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolinis often at its most engaging when examining those intersections. In late-night poker games and hundreds of business trips all over the United States, Margolin spent a great deal of time in the company of her male colleagues. She was able to do so in part because she did not marry, though she had multiple long-term romantic relationships, including with married men. Although she enjoyed the friendship and professional support of men who were presidential advisers, Supreme Court justices, and cabinet secretaries, and despite the lobbying they did in her behalf, Margolin never received a nomination for the position she coveted most: a federal judgeship.
This is a very well-written and well-crafted biography. There is, however, one subject that does not receive the attention it deserves: the opposition of powerful southern business interests to the FLSA. Trestman's analysis of Margolin's FLSA litigation, which focuses on doctrinal change, does not fully convey the strength of the countervailing forces she faced. Expanding the scope of Fair Labor Lawyerto make this point compellingly and convincingly would have made one of Trestman's principal claims—that Margolin's professional accomplishments were far-reaching and profound—itself more compelling and convincing.