On the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11, attacks, members of the USC community gathered for a discussion titled, “A Russian Jewish Kid from Shanghai takes on the American President.”
The talk featured Laurence Tribe, an author, attorney and professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. Tribe’s former pupils and research assistants at Harvard include former President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Sen. Ted Cruz. He has also spoken dozens of times before Congress and the Supreme Court.
Robert Shrum, a USC professor and longtime Democratic political consultant, hosted the discussion as a part of the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture series. The conversation focused on Tribe’s Jewish identity, legal history and feelings about the current administration.
Tribe began his opening remarks by connecting the political and historical significance of the 9/11 attacks to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I couldn’t help seeing and hearing that date through a lens that I had previously reserved only for Dec. 7, 1941, the date that FDR rightly said would live in infamy,” Tribe said in reference to 9/11.
He explained how these tragic events laid the groundwork for overreach from the government’s surveillance and military sectors. He also briefly mentioned that he felt concern for this same kind of governmental overreach in the 2016 presidential election.
In remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, Tribe recalled acting ready to undergo a root canal operation the moment the first plane hit the North Tower. He recalled the emotion he felt as everyone watched the television in the doctor’s waiting room.
“I knew, as I think just about everybody did, that we were at war,” Tribe said.
He then recalled the critical moments of his upbringing that led to a career in law defending what he considers humanitarian causes. He cited his early years in Shanghai, where he was born and lived until he moved to San Francisco at the age of 5. He found two near-death moments of his own to be especially critical: the bombing of Shanghai by American forces and Germany’s failed deal to kill all Jewish people in Shanghai.
“I clearly recall as if it were very recent, the sound, the tremor, the smell of smoke, of the explosions and the heat of the dust as the houses to our immediate right and left were demolished by American bombs,” Tribe said. “Ours somehow was spared.”
Shrum then went on to recall his history with Tribe, sharing an anecdote of a trip to Israel they took together in 1981. Shrum said that this trip helped him understand Tribe’s appreciation for his Jewish roots.
“I remember how moved you were as our plane touched down,” Shrum said. “I never thought of you as that conscious of your Jewish roots, and that day was amazing. You kissed the ground.”
Tribe confirmed the value of this trip to his spirituality. He said that after a lifetime of watching his fellow Jews ostracized, the existence of a safe place like Israel was moving to him.
Tribe then discussed his legal career, specifically how his background in mathematics informs his legal philosophy and his two most significant cases before the Supreme Court.
He said that having a knowledge of math and physics is handy in law, exploring this concept in 1989 with a research assistant named Barack Obama in a paper entitled, “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Modern Physics.”
“With Obama’s help, I tried to show our insensitivity to the way that people can be harmed by the whole shape of the legal system, not by any one cop punching about,” Tribe said. “They can be harmed by rules that say if you hear a kid crying out at home, let legal services handle it.”
He also claimed that his two most memorable cases were his first case and Bush v. Gore. To finish the conversation, he elaborated on Bush v. Gore, saying that he believed the result was much more complicated than an act of partisanship.
“I do not, however, agree with Alan Dershowitz and a lot of other law professors that the court was acting purely out of partisan whim,” Tribe said. “I think it was a lousy opinion, but I’m not ready to say the court is a bunch of political hacks.”