Timeline of scholarly misconduct by Laurence Tribe


(5/24, 2 p.m. update: Thanks to law professor Glenn Reynolds for yet another “Insta-launch,” and particularly for this memorable line: “Who does Clarke think he is, Larry Tribe?” It inspired us to write another post, which will be up soon. (end update)

At the bottom of our post yesterday we linked to posts on two old blogs written by Harvard Law students, summarizing evidence of scholarly misconduct by one of Harvard’s superstar law professors, Laurence H. Tribe (previously praised on this blog, but now added to our enemies list).

To aid our readers in assessing whether we are being fairly critical not just of CNN, but of all mass-media outlets (e.g., WaPo, USA Today, NY Daily NewsABCSlate), for failing to cover liberal Tribe’s plagiarism/ghostwriting scandals when he was appointed to high office in 2010, while being eager to cover much less serious issues involving the scholarly work of conservative Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., below is a brief chronology of some of the main evidence concerning the allegations against Professor Tribe.

We’ve created the timeline based largely on the second poster on the “Harvard Law School is Bogus” blog (an even better name than the name of our blog!), here, adding some content and many links from the very exhaustive “Harvard Plagiarism Archive” blog, starting with the links in one of its final posts, which offers a summary of the scandals, here.

(Having accurately cited the blog posts on which we’re heavily relying, to improve readability we are using language from the blog posts without bothering to interrupt the text by including quotation marks around the particular phrases we’ve borrowed.)

As noted on both blogs, there’s a four-part video explaining the Harvard Law School plagiarism scandals, covering not just Charles Ogletree and Laurence Tribe, but also Alan Dershowitz, created in 2010 by some of the students involved in the annual Law School parody. It’s mostly text, and can easily be viewed by fast readers at double speed. Colorfully it includes (in part at the beginning, and complete at the end), audio from a 2005 student parody show mocking Ogletree and Tribe. The video begins here:

Now to the timeline. (This is a rough post, and we reserve the option of updating it with corrections and additions. Rather than itemize any changes we later make, we have saved a copy of the original version, for reference purposes, here.)


Since at least the mid-1970s, Professor Tribe has employed an army of student ghostwriters to draft most of his scholarly works, to free up time for his lucrative law practice and his political activism. Most of his ghostwriters have been talented Law Review editors. A few slipped up, and in their drafts plagiarized from legitimate scholars. This is hardly a new, or one-time, thing. The evidence of his use of ghostwriters, and of plagiarism and other problems with Tribe’s scholarship, which has been uncovered so far dates all the way back to 1976.

Various portions of the November, 1976, Harvard Law Review were copied into Tribe’s constitutional law treatise (published in 1978), evidently by editors of the Review who were helping write his treatise, as Robert VerBruggen of National Review reported in June, 2010. When contacted by VerBruggen, Tribe stated that “I honestly can’t say” how those passages from the Law Review made their way into his treatise.

By 1984 Tribe was so notorious for using Law Review ghostwriters that editors of the Law Review actually mocked him for having students do his writing, in a parody issue of the Review. His ghostwriting arrangements with students were hardly secret. One of the ghostwriters mentioned in the parody issue, who ultimately clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court, later on her resume described her ghostwriting work for Tribe as follows: “Researched and drafted sections of Constitutional Choices and the second edition of American Constitutional Law.”

Also in 1984, Tribe hired then-first-year-student Ron Klain to ghostwrite a book for him, God Save This Honorable Court: How the Choice of Supreme Court Justices Shapes Our History, published in early 1985. “Many of Klain’s friends and former colleagues say that he wrote large sections of the book,” the Legal Times reported in 1993. Hiring a first-year law student to write his book for him would turn out to have dire consequences.

The 2000 edition of Tribe’s treatise contained a new section on the Seventh Amendment extolled by Tribe, in his preface, as new and original. However, in June, 2010, Robert VerBruggen of National Review discovered that hundreds of words of the section had been copied from a 1996 Supreme Court amicus brief which had been filed by eleven lawyers and law professors (not including Tribe), without any credit being given that brief, and without even a mention of the brief (despite the fact that the analysis in the brief had ultimately been rejected by the Supreme Court). When contacted for an explanation, Tribe implied he might have originally written this material, as he supposedly had worked “behind the scenes on that brief . . . .”

In an apparently rare instance of Tribe writing something on his own, in 2003 Tribe published an essay in a legal journal (Green Bag) about his first oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the essay, Tribe claimed that in litigating the case, over the strong opposition of more experienced lawyers, he briefed and orally argued a novel Ninth Amendment argument which the Court ultimately adopted, winning the day for his client. Unfortunately for Tribe, after Tribe’s scholarship came under scrutiny on another front (see below), Ramesh Ponnuru sat down and actually read the briefs and listened to the oral argument. In a 2005 National Review article, Ponnuru demonstrated that in his essay, Tribe committed what Tribe himself had called “the cardinal sin for any scholar” — “purveying false or misleading information” by “falsifying as fact what was, in truth, fantasy . . . .” In truth, as Ponnuru set out in detail, Tribe didn’t even mention the Ninth Amendment in his statement seeking review of the case; it was the other lawyers, in amicus briefs, who advanced the point. In his merits briefs Tribe mentioned the Ninth Amendment only in passing and didn’t even cite the principal U.S. Supreme Court case discussing the Ninth Amendment; again, it was the other lawyers who more forcefully made an argument based explicitly on the Ninth Amendment. Worse, in oral argument, Tribe didn’t even mention the Ninth Amendment, even after being asked what constitutional provisions, specifically, he was relying on — Tribe listed only the First, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. (More context from AuthorSkeptics here; Tribe’s response, and Ponnuru’s rebuttal, here.)

Tribe’s questionable scholarly practices first came to wide public attention in 2004 after Tribe opined, in reaction to the Ogletree plagiarism/ghostwriting scandal, that “the problem of writers . . . passing off the work of others as their own” was a significant one. A law professor (still anonymous), stunned by the hypocrisy of Tribe saying such a thing, tipped off the Weekly Standard to Tribe’s own plagiarism, in God Save, of a 1974 book on the Supreme Court published by Henry Abraham of the University of Virginia.

In a lengthy article by Joseph Bottum, the Weekly Standard reported that God Save contained numerous passages from Abraham’s book, with slight rewording to hide the copying. The article set forth various examples, making the extensive copying from Abraham’s book impossible to deny. Most glaringly, Tribe’s book contains exactly the same peculiar misquote of a 1921 book by Justice Cardozo (three words incorrectly inserted into the quote) found in Abraham’s book. No footnotes citing Abraham’s book were included in God Save. Absent the tip from a law professor who had noticed the similarities, a reader would have no way of knowing that Tribe’s book contained passages plagiarized from Abraham’s book. (By contrast, Sheriff Clarke’s master’s thesis cited every source from which certain language was borrowed, making it easy for a reader to see the similarities and also making obvious that there was no intent to deceive.)

In response to the Weekly Standard article, Tribe apologized for the offense (here and here) and then refused to grant any interviews, not even to the New York Times. Then-Dean, (now Justice) Elena Kagan was involved in the investigation of the matter, in spite of an apparent conflict of interest (in the 1980s she, too, had been a Tribe ghostwriter, and for a time even lived in his basement, and thus she had an incentive to keep hidden the extent of Tribe’s ghostwriting operation). On April 13, 2005, Kagan, along with Harvard President Lawrence Summers, relying on the work of a Harvard committee which had investigated the writing of God Save, released an official statement on behalf of Harvard clearing Tribe of any intentional wrongdoing (here).

Although Tribe, in connection with a Legal Times article on Ron Klain, in 1993 publicly disputed reports by those close to Klain that Klain “wrote large sections of the book,” in 2004 and thereafter Tribe was silent on the matter, leaving his earlier denial undisturbed. Tribe also remained silent as prominent academics pressed him to clarify whether or not he used ghostwriters, and attacked him for his apparently heavy reliance on ghostwriters.

For example, in November, 2004, Professor Peter Charles Hoffer, who had recently published a book on plagiarism and other forms of fraud committed by historians, excoriated Tribe in an interview on national television. Hoffer, no enemy of Harvard (he holds a Ph.D from Harvard and his son was a student of Tribe’s) stated that Tribe “is misusing assistants”; that he’s “not a scholar anymore”; that he’s “sort of running a research corporation.”  Hoffer further stated that he doesn’t see how Tribe can “stand up in front of a group of people as an author” when he’s actually “a compiler” of material drafted for him by others. A clip is available here:

Apparently Tribe has never publicly responded to this attack, neither admitting nor denying it. Similarly, Tribe apparently has never publicly responded to the April, 2005, statement of a law school dean, Lawrence Velvel, pressing him, if he honestly could do so, to make two simple statements which, if made, would clear him of the charge of having used ghostwriters (Paragraphs 42-43, here).

In 2006, Dean Velvel published a statement by a law professor who turned down a job offer from Tribe while attending Harvard, who knew several students who did work for Tribe. The professor reported that several students he knew “had written large tracts of Tribe’s treatise.” That statement would be libelous if untrue. Tribe sued neither Dean Velvel nor the professor.

Students’ criticism of Tribe for his reported (but not admitted) use of ghostwriters, which began with the 1984 Law Review parody issue, has continued over the years.

Beginning in October, 2004, the students who had earlier started a blog focused on the Charles Ogletree plagiarism scandal and earlier Harvard plagiarism scandals expanded their efforts to cover the Tribe scandal. One of the students took Tribe’s class the following semester, and ended up reporting on Tribe breaking his silence and addressing the scandal in e-mails sent to his class on March 14, 2005, and on April 18, 2005.

Based on the March 14 e-mail Tribe sent to his class, another group of students, involved in the annual Law School parody, launched a new blog which mocked Tribe for being thin-skinned about the “I’m Larry Tribe” parody skit (audio here) which had been performed in the live parody show a month earlier (Tribe having complained he just didn’t understand the part of the parody about “my supposedly copying some passages from somebody’s work without sufficiently crediting the original author”).

The blog was called Harvard Parody, and the inaugural post skewering Tribe is here.  The blog was notable enough that it was covered by the Weekly Standard. (The blog was also covered by Robert Shibley of FIRE and by Robert VerBruggen of National Review.) The blog has been updated intermittently over the years, and expanded to cover other subjects, most recently last month.

In June, 2005, the parodists published the lyrics to several other songs (of very uneven quality) making fun of Tribe’s scholarly practices, including “I’m a Compiler,” “December, 1984 (Oh What a Night),” “You’re So Klain,” and, by far the best, “American Tribe.” Audio of “December, 1984,” which focuses on Klain’s role in writing God Save,, was released in November, 2014, Klain then being in the news as the “Ebola Czar” (a subject covered in a separate parody song):

In 2010, as previously noted, the parodists produced a four-part video centered on the 2005 skewering of Ogletree and Tribe in the Law School live parody, and showing its context and significance.

Finally, in 2012, a separate group of students, inspired by a video released by law professor Glenn Reynolds, as part of a blog attacking the left-wing extremism of Harvard Law School — Harvard Law School is Bogus — published a post summarizing Tribe’s plagiarism/ghostwriting scandals and calling Tribe the “Anti-Hero of Harvard Law School,” and the “worst example of a law professor today.”


2 thoughts on “Timeline of scholarly misconduct by Laurence Tribe

  1. I look forward to reviewing the humorous material when I have more time. I did want to note, though, that I don’t see anything wrong in a scholar using work-for-hire. If he paid the writers and they didn’t expect any credit, then it’s his work legally and, I think, morally. For a studen tto do that, it’s plagiarism, because the student’s output is supposed to show his personal talent. Perhaps for an untenured professor that would be somewhat true also. BUt for a tenured professor, all we should care about is the quality of the work. To be sure, if it’s written by students it’s hard to see how it could be much good, but this is con law we’re talking about, where student work can get by as being professional. What Tribe is doing is saying, “This is work I think is good enough I’m willing to put my name on it and stand behind it.”

    It’s also his fault if if the work is plagiarized, though. It isn’t clear that it’s much of a defense to say that you accidentally plagiarized. It seems to me “reckless” to rely on students so muich; there was bound to be some plagiarism and PRofessor Tribe should have taken steps to prevent it if he were going to rely so much on student drafts.


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