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Bessie Margolin, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor from 1939 to 1972, who argued twenty-four times before the Supreme Court and prevailed in twenty-one cases, died at 89 on this date in 1996. Raised from the age of 4 as an orphan at the Jewish Children’s Home in New Orleans, Margolin attended Tulane University and earned her doctorate from Yale Law School in 1933 (at the time, fewer than 2 percent of American attorneys were women). She first went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority. (“Government attracts the competent women,” she later said, “because they have no alternative.”) At the Department of Labor, she supervised thirty-three other lawyers and became an expert on the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which, according the Chief Justice Earl Warren, Margolin made “meaningful and responsible” through her cases before the Court. In 1946 and 1947 she spent several months in Germany helping to prepare the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (Nazi war-criminal trials). After more than a quarter-century of trailblazing as a woman attorney, Margolin became a co-founder of the National Organization for Women in 1966. A biography by Marlene Trestman, Fair Labor Lawyer, was published in 2016.
“Bessie Margolin had used her brains, beauty and Southern charm to contribute to three of the most significant legal events of the 20th century: she defended the constitutionality of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, drafted rules that established the American military tribunals that meted out justice to accused Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, and shepherded the national court enforcement of the child labor, minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the rights later accorded by the Equal Pay Act.”--Marlene Trestman