Historian Marlene Trestman discusses Supreme Court advocate Bessie Margolin, who shaped modern American labor policy while creating a place for female lawyers in the nations highest courts. Despite her beginnings in an orphanage and her rare position as a southern, Jewish woman pursuing a legal profession, Margolin became an influential Supreme Court advocate.
She launched her career in the early 1930s, when only 2 percent of America’s attorneys were female, and far fewer were Jewish and from the South. Margolin defended the constitutionality of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, drafted rules establishing the American military tribunals for Nazi war crimes in Nuremberg, and, on behalf of the Labor Department, shepherded through the courts the child labor, minimum wage, and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
A founding member of the National Organization for Women, Margolin culminated her government service as a champion of the Equal Pay Act, arguing and winning the first appeals. Margolin’s passion for her work and focus on meticulous preparation resulted in an outstanding record in appellate advocacy, both in number of cases and rate of success. By prevailing in 21 of her 24 Supreme Court arguments, Margolin shares the elite company of only a few dozen people who attained such high standing as Supreme Court advocates.
Marlene Trestman, author of Fair Labor Lawyer, is a former special assistant to the Maryland attorney general and former law instructor at Loyola University of Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business & Management. A New Orleans native, Trestman had a personal relationship with Margolin that grew from common childhood experiences