Tribe talks about some of his favorite cases, teaching Barack Obama and Justice John Roberts and the impact he hopes it has.
Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do?
Laurence Tribe: I think … What I think about what I do is that I try to understand. That is law continues to fascinate me – turns and twists in legal theory; developments in legal analysis; a new way of looking at the Constitution; a way of seeing a connection between two doctrines, two principals that I hadn’t seen before; the excitement of understanding something, of seeing connections; the amazement. I think if I couldn’t have amazement I wouldn’t want to live. Being amazed by things, that’s really most of what I do in law. I mean I feel amazed at seeing a connection in the middle of a class that I’m teaching. I love the brightness in people’s eyes when they see what I think I’m able to see and show them. I love arguing a case in which I make a point and then I see a sparkle in the eyes of some judge or justice. I may not get her vote or his vote, but I’ve gotten them to see something that they may not have seen quite before. Barack Obama was my research assistant in my class. I can’t take credit for his greatness, but maybe it will translate into something that makes a vast difference in the world. I taught John Roberts, the current Chief Justice. I’m not exactly sure what that’s going to add up to, but it makes me feel good that I’ve had that kind of student to deal with and to teach. But most of whatever good I think I do in the world, outside my personal life – which to me is even more important in many ways – but most of the good I do in any public way I do through helping people understand. And I have a kind of faith that truth will prevail; will … I don’t want to sound too corny, but the truth will make people free. So I see myself as experiencing epiphanies, amazement, understanding; and at the same time helping to plant seeds of insight in people’s minds; and working on occasionally causes and cases that directly improve the world. I mean I was very committed to the cause of gay rights long before … I guess long before it was politically safe to be. But my wife has made me more of a liberal than I otherwise would have been, I think. And I argued the case of Bowers v. Hardwick in the Supreme Court, urging the court to uphold rights of sexual privacy. Lost five to four, expected to lose even more dramatically; but did it because I thought there would be some powerful dissents that would eventually prevail. And luckily enough I lived long enough to see that decision overruled dramatically by the Supreme Court in a case called Lawrence v. Texas. And I happened to be in the courtroom when that decision was announced. And I wrote the amicus brief for the ACLU on what I think was the right side of that case. And so being able to sense that some of one’s work on behalf of people who are oppressed, who are victimized, who are marginalized, whose dignity is denied by the state, by society; that some of that work actually bears fruit in my own lifetime. That feels wonderful. And I see myself in a general way as contributing to a number of causes of racial justice, gender justice, justice to oppressed people. But that’s in some ways a far reaching effect that I can’t really control. I mean if I argue something and hope it will turn out a certain way, all I can do is put my all in it. What I can control is the . . . is the process of coming to understand and of helping to transmit understanding. And that’s why I still find mathematics so gorgeous. And to me there isn’t that much difference between that . . . the exciting understanding of mathematics or of physics, and the understanding of an intricate legal concept that really, if you turn it upside down, you see a symmetrical . . . some other concept. It’s all part of the same exhilarating experience of coming into contact with various kinds of truths. And it took me a long time to see that there can be truth in the law as well as truth in mathematics. Because the subject matter of law is so normative. I mean human character, human desires, good and evil. We know so little about it. It’s not like a theorem. You can’t put a QED at the bottom of it. But still you can get in touch with . . . with real connections, with ideas that fit in a certain way, and can have a feeling of exhilaration that’s similar to that of reading a remarkable proof of some amazing theorem.