People in Your Neighborhood: Harry Litman, national legal affairs commentator, spends his time ‘Talking Feds’

Harry Litman
Harry Litman lives in La Jolla with his wife and their three children.
(Courtesy of Julie Litman)

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Harry Litman is a former U.S. attorney and Washington Post columnist who now writes a Los Angeles Times legal affairs column, teaches occasional undergraduate law courses at UC San Diego and UCLA and practices law with a San Francisco firm.

Litman, who has lived in the La Jolla Heights neighborhood with his wife, Julie, and their three children since moving here five years ago from New Jersey, is now most focused on his weekly podcast. The program, called “Talking Feds,” features former federal officials discussing pressing legal issues.

Here, Litman answers questions about the coronavirus pandemic and policy, among other topics:

How is it going, running a podcast and writing a column with three kids distance learning at home?

“The column has a regular rhythm now, and my lookout for the last year has been to make the podcast as good as possible. It’s my baby. With that, the articles and the law, it’s a full thing.

“The kids are 16, 14 and 12, so you don’t need to hold their hand all the time; it’s been pretty sweet. I’ve been playing guitar or yoga most days, and I think it’s because I don’t have to schlep them back and forth. Also, my wife’s here, working from home, so we’ll go for a bike ride. … It’s been kind of nice. It’s relatively easygoing around here.”

“Talking Feds” discusses pressing legal issues. Has there been a shift in such issues since the pandemic began, and what are the pressing issues now?

“When we first started, it was just people who are the main commentators on MSNBC; we were doing sound bites. It’s changed into more of a general legal affairs and politics show. [Lately], it’s been all the virus with a legal slant: state vs. federal power, the various challenges based on supposed gun rights or religious exercise, [President] Trump’s assertions of authority ... it’s been all virus all the time.

“It’s what’s on our minds, and every big issue discharges all these legal things. There’s always a legal and political affairs vantage point.”

What will be the influence of, or legacy left by, the pandemic on legal policy going forward?

“It’s so vast. I think almost no aspect of sociopolitical life will be unaffected. There will be legal issues that I think will prove to be for the courts, like who’s going to be compensated because someone recklessly gave them the virus, or what happens when employers force employees to come back to work and they catch the virus. There are legal principles that exist for that, but if you just do that through the courts, you’ll have a real kind of crazy quilt of [some] getting nothing and others getting millions. It’ll really call for legislative solutions.

“The interesting thing to me, legally, is disasters come up but they’re always isolated to a state or two. This is all 50. ... The legal fallout will be immense and hard to predict. This feels like a complete game-changing event throughout society.”

We’re inundated with coronavirus news. What’s important to pay attention to?

“I’m always thinking about who the real experts [are], who has the real data. I go to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], I pay attention to Anthony Fauci. News can be breathless and reactive. In general, I think the big question is when and how are we going to ... open up, understanding that we’re looking at a second wave? I’m looking at what different governors [are] applying in decision-making. Basically, are people thinking politically or in a science- and data-driven way? We need to look around the corner.”

What has surprised you the most about the pandemic and its impact on lifestyle?

“It felt like it went from 0 to 100 in a day and a half. I think back to when we were musing about maybe we should wait it out. It was surprising at the advent how all-consuming it was. I wouldn’t have contemplated how completely it affects life hour by hour.”

Are there any silver linings for you during the pandemic?

“The kids are getting to the age where I’m starting to get a whiff of their leaving the house, so I’m conscious of the preciousness of family time.

“In terms of the social aspect, silver linings from the frontline health care community is really inspiring. There are so many people who have willingly walked into life-and-death situations. As a society, there are certain instances of spirit and selflessness among some people that’s mind-blowing.”

What are you looking forward to when this is over?

“Just being able to hang out and talk and not have [the virus] in consciousness. I miss swimming. I used to do it four to five times a week at the YMCA.”

Switching gears away from the pandemic, how do you define success?

“Tranquillity and contentment with where you are. The people I most admire ... have a stability, a contentment, a sense of self that’s independent of their professional achievements.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

“It’s been different versions of ‘Don’t worry so much.’ Within very broad ranges, everything’s probably going to work out OK. You want to try your hardest, you want to achieve and you want to have serenity with the results. Achievements matter less than the process and daily life.”

What’s the best part of living in La Jolla?

“You wake up every day and it’s a good day.”

To listen to the “Talking Feds” podcast, visit ◆