Harvard’s Tribe to lead effort to boost legal aid

Would take leave, join Justice Dept.

Laurence Tribe has written an influential textbook on constitutional law and served as lead counsel in 35 cases before the US Supreme Court. Laurence Tribe has written an influential textbook on constitutional law and served as lead counsel in 35 cases before the US Supreme Court.
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post / February 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Laurence Tribe, a prominent Harvard law professor, will join the Justice Department next week to lead an effort focused on increasing legal access for the poor, two federal sources said yesterday.

Tribe, 68, long viewed as a contender for a US Supreme Court nomination in a Democratic administration, will serve as a senior counselor for access to justice.

Tribe, who has taught at Harvard since 1968, referred messages yesterday to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

He will take a leave of absence from Harvard Law School.

The announcement was made a week after senior leaders at the Justice Department appeared at a Washington conference to draw attention to the large caseloads handled by public defenders and other challenges in providing legal services to low-income defendants.

Some juvenile offenders, for example, are being forced to go to court without seeing a lawyer, officials said.

“Problems in our criminal justice system aren’t just morally untenable,’’ Attorney General Eric Holder told an audience at the Mayflower Hotel on Feb. 18. “They’re also economically unsustainable. . . . When the justice system fails to get it right the first time, we all pay, often for years, for new filings, retrials, and appeals.’’

The Supreme Court, in cases nearly a half century ago, ruled that defendants accused of felony crimes, serious misdemeanors, and juvenile offenses must be provided with lawyers if they cannot afford to hire attorneys on their own.

Funding shortfalls in many states, exacerbated by the current economic downturn, mean public defenders often have 100 or more clients, according to “Justice Denied,’’ a report by the Constitution Project.

“The fundamental integrity of our justice system depends on equal access to justice and effective representation for all parties,’’ said Tracy Schmaler, Justice Department spokeswoman. “In fulfilling our responsibility to ensure fairness and integrity in our justice system, the department is launching an access-to-justice initiative to provide a centralized focus to elevate the importance of these issues and take concrete steps to address them.’’

In recent weeks, speculation within legal circles about Tribe’s move to Washington had focused on a trouble-shooting role that the law professor might play in hot-button areas, such as national security and international issues. But department officials yesterday said that his portfolio would involve domestic affairs and that he would report to Thomas J. Perrelli, the associate attorney general and a Harvard Law School graduate.

Tribe supported Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations and has called the president the most impressive student he taught in a career that spans four decades. Tribe also has had as students or research assistants Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and US Solicitor General Elena Kagen.

Tribe has served as lead counsel in 35 cases before the US Supreme Court, and he has testified before Congress dozens of times.

In 2000, he was among a group of lawyers arguing presidential candidate Al Gore’s case before the US Supreme Court to allow a recount of disputed ballots in Florida. In its historic decision, the court halted the recount, leading George W. Bush to declare victory.

Tribe has also argued before the nation’s highest court on behalf of homosexual rights, in support of busing to integrate schools, in defense of “dial-a-porn’’ services as free speech, and against a rule that had forbid mentioning abortion in federally funded family planning clinics.

In 1987, he also was a key witness against Robert Bork during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Bork’s nomination for the Supreme Court.

Several of Tribe’s pro bono cases involved victims rights, including representations of migrant workers injured by large farming companies, tenant farmers in Hawaii who sought land reforms, and a group of plaintiffs suing cigarette companies for deliberate deception about the health effects of the products

Tribe was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart before joining the Harvard faculty 1968. The university has named him a university professor, its highest academic honor.

He has written several books, including the treatise “American Constitutional Law,’’ one of the most cited legal texts of the past half century. Tribe’s most recent book, “The Invisible Constitution,’’ was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press.

In 2008, Harvard Law School reported that Tribe had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor.

Tribe has since fully recovered, according to a source familiar with his health situation who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.