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Tribe admits not crediting author

Harvard scholar publicly apologizes

Laurence H. Tribe, a leading Constitutional scholar and a high-profile lawyer, has become the second Harvard Law School professor this month to acknowledge that he lifted material from another scholar's works.

After a magazine pointed out numerous instances in which his 1985 book "God Save this Honorable Court" echoes an earlier book by another professor, Tribe apologized for an "unacceptable" failure to properly credit the original writer.

Tribe's book borrows liberally from "Justices and Presidents," a 1974 work by Henry J. Abraham, now an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia. One 19-word phrase is exactly the same in both books: "Taft publicly pronounced Pitney to be a 'weak member' of the Court to whom he could 'not assign cases.' "

The similarities were reported Friday night on the Web page of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. Some supporters of Tribe, including Harvard colleague Alan M. Dershowitz, have called the story a partisan attack on a prominent liberal legal scholar. Tribe, who has argued 36 cases before the Supreme Court, recently represented the Democratic Party in its bid to keep Ralph Nader off the Florida ballot, and he also represented presidential candidate Al Gore in his lawsuit over the 2000 election results.

The book itself, which argued that the Senate should play a more aggressive role in selecting Supreme Court Justices, is considered to have provided important backing for the Democrats who prevented Robert Bork from being named to the nation's highest court.

But some also say Tribe's mistakes and those of his colleague Charles J. Ogletree revealed earlier this month are a sign that law schools need to reconsider their standards for attribution and the use of assistants in preparing books for publication.

The matter apparently came to the magazine's attention after Tribe weighed in on the plagiarism investigation of Ogletree, who acknowledged several weeks ago that his recent book "All Deliberate Speed" included six paragraphs taken almost directly from another book. Ogletree apologized and attributed the mistake to the work of two assistants who accidentally dropped attributions and quotes while working on the draft.

Tribe was quoted in the Globe as expressing sympathy for Ogletree, and he later commented to a Web log on the problem of writers, judges, and others "passing off the work of others as their own."

A law professor then contacted the Standard and suggested they look closely at Tribe's 1985 book, according to the magazine.

Yesterday, Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan did not respond to an interview request. Harvard issued only a short statement, saying: "The university and the law school will consider this matter carefully and with the confidentiality we typically accord."

In Ogletree's case, the school investigated and found "a serious scholarly transgression" but no deliberate wrongdoing. Ogletree is now facing disciplinary action that neither he nor Harvard have disclosed.

Through an assistant, Tribe declined to comment yesterday, but did provide a written statement in which he noted that "God Save this Honorable Court" acknowledged Abraham's book as the "leading political history of Supreme Court appointments."

"It turns out, however," Tribe wrote, "that my well-meaning effort to write a book accessible to a lay audience through the omission of any footnotes or endnotes -- in contrast to the practice I have always followed in my scholarly writing -- came at an unacceptable cost: my failure to attribute some of the material The Weekly Standard identified."

Tribe said that he took full responsibility and that he immediately wrote an apology to Abraham.

Reached in Venice, where he was traveling, Abraham faxed a letter to the Globe saying he would notify Tribe that he accepted the apology.

"I felt betrayed at the time I became aware of Professor Tribe's plagiarism, and I still feel that way," Abraham wrote. "But I never contacted him when I became aware of his inexcusable actions now almost 20 years ago."

In the Weekly Standard, Abraham said the lifting of phrases almost verbatim was probably due to "a combination of being lazy and making a little money."

"I'm sure his book sold better than mine," Abraham said, adding that "he's a big mahatma and thinks he can get away with this sort of thing."

In an interview with the Globe about Ogletree's book earlier this month, Tribe said people who "get on a high horse" about inadvertent plagiarism are "probably revealing more about their lack of self-knowledge than their high scholarly standards."

"I have a feeling that more than a few people who would not want to admit it have in the course of their careers accidentally found something in their own work -- a paragraph, a sentence, a line -- that they had intended to take down as a research note, but that ended up, not on the cutting room floor, but instead being sent by an assistant to a publisher," Tribe said.

Dershowitz said yesterday that law and academia sometimes have different standards, and Harvard Law School would benefit from establishing a committee to lay out clear guidelines on attribution and the use of assistants.

"Particularly in law schools, the rules are not clear, because there is a culture of judges and lawyers relying on the work of assistants," he said.

Bombardieri can be reached at

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