The Magazine

The Big Mahatma

From the October 4, 2004 issue: Laurence Tribe and the problem of borrowed scholarship

Oct 4, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 04 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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."

And against even this tiny hint of Tribe's use--the only appearance of Abraham in the book--one must set Tribe's preface, which explains the lack of footnotes by claiming: "much of what this book contains represents the culmination of more years of research and reflection about the Supreme Court and its role than I care to confess. Thus I cannot hope to trace here all the roots of the ideas that appear in these chapters--or to allocate credit or blame among the many who share indirect responsibility for the thoughts I have expressed."

GOD SAVE THIS HONORABLE COURT appeared in 1985 from Random House, selling well and receiving generally laudatory notices--and when the Wall Street Journal ran a less-praising review, Tribe took issue in a letter to the editor. A reviewer in the Los Angeles Times, Dennis J. Mahoney (author of this year's Politics and Progress, an interesting history of the academic discipline of political science in America), seemed to hint at the reliance on Abraham's book, "from which Tribe apparently borrowed most of his examples," but at the time, no one took particular notice.

No one, that is, but Henry J. Abraham himself. Abraham's Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court first appeared from Oxford University Press in 1974. A second edition followed in 1985, a third in 1992, and Rowman & Littlefield brought out a fourth edition in 1999, retitled Justices, Presidents, and Senators.