HOTSEAT- Hello, Dahlia! Lithwick relishes Supreme Court jester role

Dahlia Lithwick

In the last decade, Dahlia Lithwick has gone from unemployed attorney and aspiring author to one of the pre-eminent legal writers in America, becoming a senior editor at Internet magazine Slate, the go-to law expert for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR, and joining the likes of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as one of the "20 most influential legal minds in the country," according to Legal Affairs.

But none of it might have happened except for a chance visit to a friend in Washington in 1998.

"Slate called her up and asked if she'd file a few dispatches, probably just to hold on to their press pass until they found someone to cover the Microsoft anti-trust trial," recalls Lithwick. "She said she couldn't do it, but handed me the phone. I didn't know anything about anti-trust law. I hadn't been following the case, but they needed a warm body. So I just went in there and started making jokes."

Those jokes evolved into a regular gig for Lithwick, as she has continued to write her "Supreme Court Dispatches" and "Jurisprudence" column for Slate for the last decade, carving out a new niche in Supreme Court coverage.

"The convention had been to cover the court as if the justices were dead and the law were alive," she says. "Since I was writing for the Internet and people had no expectations, if I wanted to do schtick about Scalia, I could go ahead and do it."

That Lithwick has made a career tweaking the major players in American legal circles is no accident. She had the perfect training to view the courtroom as absurdist theater.

"Before this, I worked at a divorce law firm in Reno," she says. "It was usually some guy divorcing his third trophy wife to marry his fourth trophy wife, and they would pay me hundreds of dollars an hour to fight over the $25 Tupperware I could have bought them at Wal-Mart."

While her current line of work put an end to billable hours and ill-tempered clients, Lithwick concedes the constant commuting from Charlottesville to Washington for Court matters does put the mother of two- and four-year-old boys in occasional awkward situations.

"I was breastfeeding during [Chief Justice] John Roberts' confirmation hearing," she says. "So my life was running, and weeping, and pumping, and trying to cover the hearing. It was the most ridiculous Punch-and-Judy show, with these senators trying to trip John Roberts– who's 10 times smarter than anyone on the committee– with a tricky question. And all I wanted to do was go home to my baby."

Still, Lithwick is inspired by what she believes is vital work.

"When I met [Justice Stephen] Breyer for the first time, we were both hopping up and down like 14-year-old girls, and he told me 'What you're doing is so important, to humanize this court,'" she recalls. "With all this talk of 'activist judges' and even judges being shot at for their rulings, it's important to remember they're just human beings."

However, much as she tries to show the more personal side of the justices in her writing, Lithwick gets the occasional reminder that she knows them only so well.

"It's like people feeling they know Brad Pitt from seeing him on TV all the time," she says. "I literally bumped into [former Chief Justice William] Rehnquist on the street one day in Washington, and I felt like I'd run into my grandfather. He didn't even know who I was."

Age: 40.

Why here? My husband was living in New York, and I was living in D.C. and this was our compromise. True story.

What's worst about living here? Having to wake up at 4am to make it to the Supreme Court by 10. I will be in the first seat in the first car when that high-speed rail gets built.

Favorite hangout? The Discovery museum, Java Java, Greenleaf Park, C'Ville Coffee

Most overrated virtue? Timeliness

People would be surprised to know: My husband and I are the morons who pretend to be on a rollercoaster ride every time they start the movie at the Regal Cinema Downtown.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be organized– one of those people with a labeling gun and multicolored file boxes everyone calls when they need to know how to remove red wine stains.

Proudest accomplishment? Finding a job that I'd happily have done for free and more than likely have paid to do.

People find most annoying about you: My congenital inability to respond to the first 10 e-mails. Followed by a congentinal inability to respond to the next 12.

Whom do you admire? Sandra Day O'Connor. I spent years beating away on her when she was on the Supreme Court for her quirky jurisprudence. And then when she retired– at the height of her authority and to take care of a sick spouse– I realized she was not just a model of work/life balance but also a pragmatic, savvy, non-ideological hero who is now so missing at the high court.

Favorite book? Middlemarch by George Eliot

Subject that causes you to rant? The assault on civil liberties and the war on terror

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Facebook and the ability to stalk old boyfriends

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Facebook and the possibility of being stalked by old boyfriends

What do you drive? A Toyota Prius. Yes, that one.

In your car CD player right now: I totally thought it was Hannukah music, but my (far hipper) husband says it's the White Stripes.

Next journey? Reno, for a wedding and a 39-hour stint at the blackjack tables

Most trouble you've ever gotten in: I got sent to the principal's office for talking during prayers in fourth grade.

Regret: I should have enjoyed law school more.

Favorite comfort food: Cheese in its every last manifestation, from fondue to cheese puffs

Always in your refrigerator: That sweet, artificially flavored coffee creamer. I once used it in mashed potatoes!

Must-see TV: House, The Office, and Lost

Describe a perfect day: A houseful of friends over for Sunday brunch, mass of undifferentiated kids mashing cream cheese into the walls, good coffee, good screaming about politics

Walter Mitty fantasy: Easy. Girl-spy. With a decoder ring, and the poison lipstick, and the power to flatten James Bond with a single flutter of my radioactive eyelashes.

Who'd play you in the movie? Jennifer Grey, or Barbara Streisand, or Bette Midler or some other curly headed girl

Most embarrassing moment? I once did CNN with a Cheerio in my hair.

Best advice you ever got? My four-year-old told me: "Mommy, it's okay to be funnier, but you can't be fibbier."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Screw world peace, visualize driving."