When Harvard faculty members disagree, they often do so in polite speeches at faculty meetings and formal letters to deans.
Harvard Law School professors Laurence H. Tribe ’62 and Alan M. Dershowitz argue differently, though. The pair of legal scholars has spent the past several weeks engaging in a public, personal feud unlike perhaps any other at the University, sparked by Dershowitz’s decision to defend President Donald J. Trump in his Senate impeachment trial.
“I thought that he had become a bit of a publicity hog and a celebrity seeking fellow who cared less about justice than about fame and fortune,” Tribe said in an interview about Dershowitz.
“He is a zealot and a partisan,” Dershowitz said about Tribe.
Dershowitz formally joined Trump’s defense team on Jan. 17, announcing on Twitter he would deliver oral statements to the Senate to explain the constitutional arguments against impeachment. The trial, which concluded Wednesday, cleared Trump of both charges against him — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Soon after Dershowitz’s announcement, Tribe joined a chorus of legal scholars questioning his arguments. Still, Tribe was one of few critics who could claim personal ties to Dershowitz spanning decades.
“Although I am hesitant to call out a friend and former colleague as being a danger to democracy, I finally decided that Alan Dershowitz because of his – at least, former – credibility had become such a danger that I could no longer hold back, and I, therefore, began to feel quite free to say what an idiotic argument I thought he was making,” Tribe said in an interview last Tuesday.
Dershowitz, for his part, said Tribe has unfairly attempted to silence him.
“The critical senators seem to accept my argument, or at least to take it seriously. And I would expect that fellow academics would do the same,” he said.
While Dershowitz and Tribe may disagree about the merits of impeaching Trump, they share at least one thing: a resume littered with prestigious accomplishments.
A Brooklyn, N.Y. native, Dershowitz graduated from Brooklyn College and Yale Law School before joining the Harvard Law School faculty at age 25. Touted as “the best-known criminal lawyer in the world” and “America’s most public Jewish defender” in his Law School biography, he has defended high-profile and controversial clients such as billionaire and accused sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and football star O.J. Simpson.
Law School professor Charles Fried said in an interview Wednesday that he considers Dershowitz an intelligent scholar.
“He was always considered an electric and brilliant teacher of criminal law just right from the very start,” he said.
Tribe, a graduate of both the College and the Law School, began teaching at Harvard in 1968. He helped write the constitutions of South Africa, the Czech Republic, and the Marshall Islands, and holds the title University Professor — considered Harvard’s highest academic honor for faculty.
Though the two professors never worked together directly on campus, both described their relationship prior to Dershowitz’s retirement as professional and good-natured.
“I wouldn't say we were close friends, but we were certainly friends,” Tribe said.
“I proposed him to President Clinton for Solicitor General of the United States,” Dershowitz said. “I've always had respect for his ideas.”
Before recent events, Tribe said he and Dershowitz had just one prior dust-up. While both teaching at the Law School in 1992, the two professors disagreed about the appropriateness of a Harvard Law Review “parody” of a colleague’s deceased wife.
Tribe said he wanted the Law School to note the incident on the transcripts of the students who wrote the article; Dershowitz argued against censuring them.
“Ever since then, we’ve been a little distant because he thought he is the only pure civil libertarian around and that I was one of the compromised ones, and one of the things that is most kind of difficult to deal with about Alan is how he thinks that he’s the only principled person around,” he said.
The 1992 argument, however, was just a preview of events to come.
Though Tribe said he and Dershowitz have had some previous differences of opinion, their arguments have become increasingly public amid the impeachment debate.
In both his formal defense of Trump and online, Dershowitz claimed that the charges brought by the U.S. House of Representatives against Trump are not impeachable offenses according to the Constitution. He said the Constitution does not explicitly include the terms used to describe the charges and that its authors would not approve of them.
“My views are that impeachment cannot be based on vague, open-ended terms like ‘abuse of power’ and ‘obstruction of Congress,’” Dershowitz said. “Those terms can be applied to almost any president, and they’re dangerous.”
Tribe said that — even if the House’s language contains ambiguities — the impeachment trial should rest upon Trump’s actions rather than linguistic questions.
“Obviously, that phrase in itself has a degree of vagueness and ambiguity, but that’s only the label of the impeachment charge,” Tribe said. “In order to determine whether someone has been charged properly with impeachable offenses, one has to look at the specific conduct that is claimed.”
“It seems that my former colleague has this view that ‘abuse of power’ is not a permissible category of impeachable offense, which couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he added. “Abuse of power is the characteristic impeachable offense.”
Following Dershowitz’s testimony before the Senate, several legal experts joined Tribe in countering his arguments. Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, compared Dershowitz to opponents of the climate change movement.
“Dershowitz’s view of what constitutes an impeachable offense is as indefensible and rejected by scholars as climate deniers,” Mariotto wrote in a tweet on Wednesday. “Not a single constitutional scholar agrees with his view.”
Michael J. Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in conflicts between Congress and the President, disputed another aspect of Dershowitz’s claim.
“Professor Dershowitz made what I think was a very bizarre argument about if a president believes something’s in his purse — if he believes that what he’s doing is in the nation's best interest — he apparently can do anything he wants, and that strikes me as completely wrong,” Gerhardt said.
But Tribe said his concerns about Dershowitz’s arguments stretch beyond impeachment.
“My fundamental disagreement with Professor Dershowitz is that if his view were to prevail, the country would be fundamentally at the mercy of future presidents who want to use their official powers in order to benefit themselves and corrupt our elections and ensure their reelection,” he said.
Dershowitz and Tribe have disagreed about Law School issues and constitutional questions. But the duo have also criticized one another personally in tweets and interviews.
“Tribe so afraid of the Senate hearing my constitutional arguments that he actually says, I ‘should not be allowed’ to make them. Is that the American way?” Dershowitz wrote on Twitter on Jan. 20.
“The @AlanDersh Narcissist defense puts even the Twinkie defense to shame,” Tribe wrote on Jan. 30, referencing a controversial legal argument made while Dan White faced trial for the murder of former San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk.
Dershowitz claimed the dispute has been largely one-sided, charging that Tribe made legal arguments personal.
“Tribe decided to engage in personal ad hominem attacks on me and my ideas,” Dershowitz said. “He characterized my legal conclusions as ‘bonkers’ and ‘crud, C-R-U-D’ despite the fact that they are supported by 19th-century scholars, justices, former justices, and lawyers.”
Tribe countered that claim: he alleged Dershowitz has told multiple reporters that Tribe is jealous of him.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Tribe said. “The person I would least like to be on our faculty is Alan Dershowitz.”
In a bid to move their arguments from Twitter, Dershowitz said he hoped to engage Tribe in an in-person debate over the law.
“I challenge my friend and former colleague, Larry Tribe, to an academic serious debate about these issues — about what the constitutional grounds for impeachment are, what the framers intended — and I hope you will accept my challenge instead of, you know, juvenile name-calling and schoolyard epithets,” Dershowitz said.
At least one student who knew both Tribe and Dershowitz said comparing the pair’s arguments is fruitless. Political commentator Elie Y. Mystal ’00, a graduate of the Law School, wrote in an email that the two professors engage in entirely different lines of work.
“It’s like comparing an astrophysicist to a zoologist,” he wrote. “They’re both technically scientists, but if you just go to random office hours in the Science Center asking “when will we die” you’re going to get very different answers.”
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.