September 26, 2004


The Big Mahatma: Laurence Tribe and the problem of borrowed scholarship (Joseph Bottum, 10/04/2004, Weekly Standard)

In 1985, Harvard University's Laurence H. Tribe, the most famous and widely cited constitutional law professor in the United States, signed his name to a book called God Save This Honorable Court that now appears--how shall we say it?--perhaps "uncomfortably reliant" on a 1974 book called Justices and Presidents by the University of Virginia's Henry J. Abraham.

POOR HARVARD seems to be going through a spate of such incidents. A national news cycle was generated in 2002 when THE WEEKLY STANDARD broke the story that Doris Kearns Goodwin--a member of Harvard's Board of Overseers and a former professor of government at the school--had done some serious copying for her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and then bought off one of the authors from whom she lifted her material.

Next, in a more complicated case, Harvard law school's Alan Dershowitz was accused of overusing a single secondary source for his 2003 book, The Case for Israel.

Finally, just a few weeks ago, on September 3, Charles J. Ogletree, Harvard's Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, admitted on the university's website that the assistants who'd actually prepared his new All Deliberate Speed:

Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education lifted six consecutive paragraphs from a 2001 book by Yale's Jack M. Balkin.

ODDLY ENOUGH, Laurence Tribe plays a role in two of these stories. (And peripherally touches the third, if one counts the thanks he offers Dershowitz, his "friend and colleague," in the preface to God Save This Honorable Court.)

When the Goodwin incident prompted Harvard's undergraduate newspaper, the Crimson, to call for her scalp--"Goodwin's plagiarism of sentences, nearly verbatim, from source materials is inexcusable. . . . [S]he should recognize that her action is unbecoming an Overseer and resign her post immediately"--Tribe wrote a letter in the next issue expressing "great sadness" at how "mindlessly" the students' editorial had attacked her.

Goodwin "had not the slightest intention to deceive, to claim originality for thoughts that were unoriginal, or to appropriate another's deathless prose in hopes that she might be credited with a literary gift that belongs in truth to someone else," Tribe insisted. Oh, he admitted, she had "erred in following her own paraphrased handwritten notes without checking back in every last one of the 300 or so books she cited." But Goodwin's work was "documented with something like 3,500 footnotes," which according to Tribe proved both her commitment to scholarship and her "personal integrity."

Then, this year, Tribe initially appeared willing to excuse Charles Ogletree's plagiarism altogether, telling the Boston Globe: "It clearly represents the fact that because he so often says yes to the many people all over the country who ask for his help on all kinds of things, he has extended himself even farther than someone with all that energy can safely do."

Challenged about this apparent absolution, however, he later offered a rather different analysis. In an email posted on a blog about legal topics run by Lawrence R. Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, Tribe wrote, "What I told the Boston Globe about the way in which [Ogletree] has overextended himself was not intended to be a complete explanation or justification." And there is more to say, he allowed: "The larger problem"--the "problem of writers, political office-seekers, judges and other high government officials passing off the work of others as their own"--is "a phenomenon of some significance" and worth exploring.

THAT SEEMED a little rich for one reader of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, a law professor who suggested we take a look at Tribe's own God Save This Honorable Court if we wanted to explore the "problem of writers . . . passing off the work of others as their own."

And so we did, and the result is . . . well, what? It's awkward to name what Laurence Tribe has done in God Save This Honorable Court. In his letter to the Crimson about Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tribe proudly called himself a "scholar who values his own integrity and reputation for meticulous attribution as much as anyone could."

But even Goodwin's discredited book, by Tribe's own account, contained "something like 3,500 footnotes" citing "300 or so" other works; God Save This Honorable Court, by unflattering contrast, contains no footnotes at all--nor any other sort of "meticulous attribution." Instead, at the end of God Save This Honorable Court, we find a two-page "Mini-Guide to the Background Literature," which lists Henry Abraham's Justices and Presidents as merely the twelfth of fifteen books (including two of Tribe's own previous works) that "an interested reader might wish to consult."

The decline of the Democratic Party makes it a moot point, but so much for ever making the Court.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2004 8:41 AM

Wow. This is big. Tribe is the left's god when it comes to Con Law.

Posted by: pchuck at September 26, 2004 12:34 PM

Tribe never would have been confirmed in any event.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 26, 2004 1:21 PM

Tribe is brilliant at sticking at just-left-of-center, meaning he's moved right over the last twenty years.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 26, 2004 5:24 PM