Bench Memos

Larry Tribe’s (Belated) Mea Culpa

Prompted by Vice President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he would not be a candidate for president in 2016, I was reminded of an episode from the past, when Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987. Ronald Reagan was in the White House; Robert Bork had not yet been nominated for the Supreme Court. In February 1987, President Reagan nominated my friend, University of San Diego law professor Bernard H. Siegan to the Ninth Circuit. In a dress rehearsal for what was later to become known as “borking,” Biden and his liberal buddies in the legal establishment had a field day smearing Siegan. Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe paid a particularly ignominious role in this spectacle.

In a post on the Library of Law and Liberty, I recount how Tribe publicly trashed Siegan as “unfit to serve as a federal judge” (and later disparaged him in his treatise, American Constitutional Law). The Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately rejected Siegan’s nomination by a party-line vote. Tribe later reconsidered his assessment of Siegan and promised to correct his assessment of Siegan in the next edition of his treatise, which never came out. Siegan died in 2006, still waiting for Tribe to clear his name.

Siegan’s widow, Shelley, discovered the correspondence between her late husband and Tribe while sorting through Siegan’s effects. She contacted Tribe, who graciously apologized for his poisonous letter to Biden in 1987. In August 2007, more than 20 years after Tribe publicly defamed Siegan, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) inserted Tribe’s long overdue apology in the Congressional Record after Biden failed to do so. Tribe showed some class by acknowledging his error in 1987; Biden never did.