Harvard constitutional law scholar Laurence H. Tribe ’62 apologized yesterday for not properly crediting another professor’s work in his popular 1985 book God Save This Honorable Court, one day after a conservative political magazine accused him of plagiarism.
The Weekly Standard posted an article on its website Saturday charging Tribe with using language that closely mirrors sections of Henry J. Abraham’s 1974 book on Supreme Court appointments, Justices and Presidents.
And at one point in his 1985 book, Tribe lifts a 19-word passage verbatim from Abraham’s text.
Tribe could not be reached directly for comment yesterday, but issued a statement to The Crimson via e-mail.
He said he recognized his “failure to attribute some of the material The Weekly Standard identified.”
“I personally take full responsibility for that failure,” Tribe said.
Tribe’s mea culpa comes just three weeks after another prominent Harvard faculty member—Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree—publicly apologized for copying six paragraphs almost word-for-word from a Yale scholar in a recent book, All Deliberate Speed.
Last fall, Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz also battled plagiarism charges. And in 2002, Harvard Overseer Doris Kearns Goodwin admitted that she had accidently copied passages from another scholar in her bestseller The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.
University President Lawrence H. Summers told The Crimson in an interview last week—before the allegations against Tribe surfaced—that he did not see “a big trend” of plagiarism problems at the Law School as a result of the charges against Ogletree and Dershowitz, but indicated that a third case would change his mind.
“If you had a third one, then I would have said, okay, you get to say this is a special thing, a focused problem at the Law School,” Summers said of the recent academic dishonesty cases.
He declined comment last night.
Tribe, who was named one of Harvard’s 19 University Professors last June, defended Goodwin against plagiarism charges two years ago on the grounds that her work was “closely documented with something like 3,500 footnotes.”
Tribe’s 1985 book did not contain footnotes and endnotes—a decision he made as part of a “well-meaning effort to write a book accessible to a lay audience.”
Instead, Tribe includes a single sentence mentioning Abraham’s book in an appendix on background literature.
“I have immediately written an apology to Professor Abraham, whom I—like so many others—hold in the highest regard,” Tribe said in his statement.
The 83-year-old Abraham, who is retired from his post as a law professor at the University of Virginia, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
But both Ogletree and Dershowitz jumped to defend their colleague from the charges leveled against him.
Ogletree, speaking to The Crimson yesterday, dismissed The Standard’s allegations against Tribe as “nonsense.”
“I think Larry [Tribe] may be overreacting,” Dershowitz said yesterday, when asked whether Tribe was right to apologize. “Abraham sat on this story for 20 years. If he had a gripe, he should have written to Larry 20 years ago.”
Abraham told The Standard last week that Tribe’s failure to credit his sources did not come as a surprise.
“I was aware of what Tribe was doing when I first read his book,” Abraham told The Standard. “But I chose not to do anything at the time. I’ve never confronted him—and I was wrong in not following it up. I should have done something about it.”
Abraham told The Standard that Tribe is “a big mahatma and thinks he can get away with this sort of thing.”
But the former dean of Stanford Law School said yesterday that The Standard’s allegations should not tarnish Tribe’s reputation.
“Tribe’s towering contributions to the field of constitutional law over four decades should not be overshadowed by this episode,” the dean, Kathleen M. Sullivan, wrote in an e-mail. Sullivan was Tribe’s colleague on the Harvard faculty from 1984 to 1993.
Dershowitz said yesterday that The Standard’s charges against Tribe were politically motivated.
“Show me the man, and I’ll find you the crime,” Dershowitz said—a quotation he attributed to Soviet spymaster Lavrenti Beria. “Clearly someone was looking to pin something on the most prominent liberal constitutional scholar in the country.”
Tribe joined the Harvard Law faculty in 1968 and quickly entered the spotlight as an eloquent advocate for liberal causes. He has argued three dozen cases in front of the Supreme Court—famously representing Vice President Albert J. Gore Jr. ’69 in the December 2000 Florida recount dispute.
Dershowitz said that Tribe’s 1985 book was an effective element of “the Democratic arsenal” as liberals tried to block Ronald Reagan’s right-wing judicial nominations.
“It worked, and the Right has been pissed at Tribe ever since,” said Dershowitz.
Dershowitz called yesterday for stricter University guidelines on source citations and the use of research assistants so that scholars could avoid ideologically motivated charges of plagiarism in the future.
Harvard’s Writing With Sources manual, which is distributed to all undergraduates when they enter as freshmen, offers a crystal-clear definition of plagiarism: “passing off a source’s information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to cite them; an act of lying, cheating, and stealing.”
But Dershowitz said guidelines in the legal profession are murkier.
He said that judges frequently rely on lawyers’ briefs and clerks’ memoranda in drafting opinions. This results in a “cultural difference” between sourcing in the legal profession and other academic disciplines, Dershowitz said.
Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan had not heard of the accusations against Tribe when The Crimson contacted her yesterday.
But after Kagan was referred to The Standard’s piece, she wrote in an e-mail: “The Law School takes all allegations of academic impropriety very seriously. I can’t comment further on this matter until I’ve had a full opportunity to review the relevant materials.”
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.