Tribe To Take Leave from Harvard to Lead DoJ Initiative

Constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 will take a leave from Harvard Law School to lead a new initiative that seeks to improve access to legal services for the poor and the middle class.

The Access to Justice program will focus on improving indigent defense services—legal assistance for people who are unable to afford a lawyer. Tribe will serve as a primary liaison to the federal and state judiciary, working with judges and attorneys across the country to improve the delivery of legal services, according to Department of Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

Tribe, who starts in his new position today, will direct a team focusing on finding alternatives to expensive court- and lawyer-intensive services. Tribe declined to comment for this article.

Theodore B. Olson—a prominent conservative laywer who served as Solicitor General under former President George W. Bush and a longtime colleague of Tribe—said he thinks that Tribe will be consulted by the Department of Justice on many different issues.

“If I had access to [Tribe] when I was in the Department of Justice, I am sure I would have talked to him about many constitutional issues,” Olson said. “I think it’s great for the Department to get a talent like him. He has so much energy and so many ideas.”

According to Schmaler, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. has wanted to make indigent justice issues a priority for a long time. Holder declared that the system is in “crisis” at an indigent defense symposium in Washington, D.C. last month.

Tribe was selected to lead the initiative in part because he has experience in access-to-justice cases in pro bono work, Schmaler said.

Tribe’s pro bono work has often addressed access to justice issues, and he has frequently advocated for policy changes strengthening victims’ rights.

Most recently, Tribe argued Wilkie v. Robbins before the Supreme Court in 2006, representing a ranch owner in Wyoming whose business was compromised when federal land officers pushed him to surrender part of his land.

“I think that throughout his entire career he has shown great interest in these issues,” Olsen said. “I know he feels very passionately about it.”

The duration for the Access to Justice initiative is flexible and will depend in part on the year-to-year budget, according to Schmaler. It is unknown how long Tribe will work for the Department of Justice, she said.

Despite the uncertainty of the project’s timeline, Tribe will be able to ensure the project remains a top priority, Olsen said.

“[Access to Justice] will be organized and disciplined. Initiatives that will be put in place will last,” Olsen said. “People cannot ignore him. No one wouldn’t pick up the phone to take a call from Larry Tribe.”

—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at zoe.weinberg@college.harvard.edu.

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