Question: How do you understand justice?
Laurence Tribe: Well I suppose just seeing the suffering that I was kind of indirectly aware of in World War II; seeing my father become a prisoner in a camp that was run by the Japanese when he had done nothing wrong; knowing how many people were dying in the war. I had a sense that things happened to people that they don’t deserve, and that there ought to be ways of making the world more peaceful, making people more decent to one another. But I didn’t connect that with any vocation for myself in particular as I was growing up. I always thought I would like to help people. I thought maybe being a doctor would be the way to help them – save lives, reduce suffering. I guess every, you know . . . It would be an unusual kid with a Jewish mother and a Jewish father who didn’t want to be a doctor at some point. But that’s what I wanted to be, although I also wanted to be an artist. And I thought that somehow through medicine I could help people, and through art I could experience some kind of epiphany. I didn’t really enjoy art when I was a kid as I do now. It was a way of releasing dark feelings. I mean my paintings when I was a teenager were paintings of guillotines and dissected brains lying on tables. They weren’t . . . they weren’t happy scenes. As I did grow up and I started reading newspapers and things, I felt keenly that there were terrible things that were going on; that people, you know . . . African-Americans were not allowed to go to school in parts of the country with white kids. This was before Brown v. Board of Education. There were people who were being mistreated around the world. There were people who were separated for reasons that were unjust. I remember always feeling that it was wrong that my grandfather – because he had been quite a radical in his youth – was unable to get a visa to come to the United States. And I did everything I could to change that. I wrote to Pierre Salinger – I guess who was then a Senator in California – and pleaded the case and got my grandfather a visitor’s visa when he was in his 80s. So my sense of being able to do something about what felt like injustices was always latent; but I hadn’t ever thought of a career in which I could do that meaningfully other than sort of on a small scale helping people through medicine. The shift to law was really very sudden and somewhat inexplicable. There were a lot of little events that made law seem exciting and interesting. And also there was this background feeling of justice; the sense that maybe through law I could actually make a difference without being a genius. And as I concluded that the problem with math for me was that I was very good at it.
I thought, you know … I went to a lecture given by Mark de Wolfe Howe, an Admiralty Law at Harvard Law. I just wanted to see what it was like. And he told the story about a vessel in which a sailor had dropped a hammer on his foot. And the question was whether that episode in itself rendered that ship unseaworthy. And that was kind of a weird consequence. And hearing the history of how the unseaworthiness concept evolved made me sense that this was something that had everything I wanted. It had abstraction and yet concreteness. It could actually work to people’s benefit. It had absurdity. I loved the absurdity of some of the rules, how odd things were. It had romance, the lore of the sea. I mean little did I know that admiralty law, which is not something I ended up in, was nothing like – “I must go down to the sea again” – nothing like Moby Dick. It was an arcane little corner of the law. But the idea of combining beauty, absurdity, surrealism, history, morality, justice – all of that appealed to me enormously. And though I had a difficult time adjusting to the law … Because I expected its rigor and its precision to be parallel to that in mathematics, and learned quickly enough that that wasn’t true at all – that the human brain, the human soul, human experience was so much more intricate, so much more difficult even than the most profound mathematics that we couldn’t be precise about it. And that was a little frustrating and took some adjusting to; but in the end I loved the combination of the playfulness of the ideas, the depth and seriousness of the historical background, the implications of moral philosophy and the fact that you can actually do something for people; make things better even if you’re not, you know, the greatest lawyer who ever lived, whatever that might mean.