Tribe is a scholar of constitutional law and cofounder of American Constitution Society. He is the author of American Constitutional Law (1978), a major treatise in that field, and has argued before the United States Supreme Court 36 times.
Tribe was born in Shanghai, China, the son of Paulina (née Diatlovitsky) and George Israel Tribe. His family was Jewish. His father was from Poland and his mother was born in Harbin, to immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was raised in the French Concession of Shanghai. Tribe attended Abraham Lincoln High School, San Francisco, California. He holds an A.B. in mathematics, summa cum laude from Harvard College (1962), and a J.D., magna cum laude from Harvard Law School (1966), where he was a member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Tribe was a member of the Harvard team that won the intercollegiate National Debate Tournament in 1961 and coached the team to the same title in 1969.
Tribe served as a law clerk to Mathew Tobriner on the California Supreme Court from 1966–67 and as a law clerk to Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967–68. He joined the Harvard Law School faculty as an assistant professor in 1968, receiving tenure in 1972. Among his law students and research assistants while on the faculty at Harvard have been President Barack Obama (a research assistant for two years), Chief Justice John Roberts (as a law student in his classes), US Senator Ted Cruz, Chief Judge and Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan (as a research assistant).
In 1978, Tribe published the first version of what has become one of the core texts on its subject, American Constitutional Law. It has since been updated and expanded a number of times.
In 1983 Tribe represented Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon in the appeal of his federal conviction on income tax charges.
Tribe represented the restaurant Grendel's Den in the case Larkin v Grendel's Den in which the restaurant challenged a Massachusetts law which allowed religious establishments to prohibit liquor sales. The case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1982 where the court overturned the law as violating of the separation of church and state. The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well criticizes the opening of his brief as a "thicket of confusing citations and unnecessary definitions" stating that it would have been "measurably strengthened" if he had used the "more lively imagery" that he had used in a footnote later in the document.
In the 1985 National Gay Task Force v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, Tribe represented the National Gay Task Force who had won an Appeals Court ruling against an Oklahoma law that would have allowed schools to fire teachers who were attracted to people of the same sex or spoke in favor of civil rights for LGBT people. The Supreme Court deadlocked which left the Appeals Court's favorable ruling in place, declaring the law would have violated the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled against Tribe's client in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 and held that a Georgia state law criminalizing sodomy, as applied to consensual acts between persons of the same sex, did not violate fundamental liberties under the principle of substantive due process. However, in 2003 the Supreme Court overruled Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, a case for which Tribe wrote the ACLU's amicus curiae brief supporting Lawrence, who was represented by Lambda Legal.
Tribe testified at length during the Senate confirmation hearings in 1987 about the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination, arguing that Bork's stand on the limitation of rights in the Constitution would be unique in the history of the Court. His participation in the hearings raised his profile outside of the legal realm and he became a target of right-wing critics. His phone was later found to have been wiretapped, but it was never discovered who had placed the device or why.
Tribe's 1990 book Abortion: Clash of Absolutes, was called "informative, lucidly written and cogently reasoned" in a review in the Journal of the American Bar Association.
Tribe was part of Al Gore's legal team regarding the results of the United States presidential election, 2000. Due to the close nature of the vote count, recounts had been initiated in Florida, and the recounts had been challenged in court. Tribe argued the initial case in Federal Court in Miami in which they successfully argued that the court should not stop the recount of the votes which was taking place and scheduled to take place in certain counties. David Boies argued for the Gore team in a related matter in the Florida State Courts regarding the dates that Secretary of State of Florida Katherine Harris would accept recounts. When the original Federal case, Bush v. Gore, was appealed, Gore and his advisers decided at the last minute to have Boies instead of Tribe argue the case at the Supreme Court. The court determined that recounts of votes should cease and that accordingly George W. Bush had been elected President.
In 2004, Tribe acknowledged having plagiarized several specific phrases and a sentence in his 1985 book, God Save this Honorable Court, to a 1974 book by Henry Abraham. After an investigation, Tribe was reprimanded by Harvard for "a significant lapse in proper academic practice," but the investigation concluded that Tribe's error was unintentional.
Since the mid-1990s, Tribe has represented a number of corporations advocating for their free speech rights and constitutional personhood. Tribe represented General Electric in its defense against its liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act ("Superfund"), in which GE and Tribe unsuccessfully argued that the act unconstitutionally violated General Electric's due process rights.
In 2014, Tribe was retained to represent Peabody Energy in a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency. Tribe argued that EPA's use of the Clean Air Act to implement its Clean Power Plan was unconstitutional. Tribe's legal analysis has been criticized by other legal commentators, including fellow Harvard Law School professors Richard J. Lazarus and Jody Freeman, who described his conclusion as "wholly without merit". His advocacy for corporations like Peabody has been criticized by some legal experts.
Tribe is one of the co-founders of the liberal American Constitution Society, the law and policy organization formed to counter the conservative Federalist Society, and is one of a number of scholars at Harvard Law School who have expressed their support for animal rights.
Tribe served as a judicial adviser to the Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In February 2010, he was named "Senior Counselor for Access to Justice" in the Department of Justice. He resigned eight months later, citing health reasons.
In December 2016 Tribe and notable lawyers Lawrence Lessig and Andrew Dhuey established The Electors Trust under the aegis of EqualCitizens.US to provide pro bono legal counsel as well as a secure communications platform for those of the 538 members of the United States Electoral College who are regarding a vote of conscience against Donald Trump in the presidential election
In May 2017, after the dismissal of James Comey, Tribe wrote: "The time has come for Congress to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump for obstruction of justice." Tribe argued that Trump's conduct rose to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that are impeachable offenses under the Constitution. He added, "It will require serious commitment to constitutional principle, and courageous willingness to put devotion to the national interest above self-interest and party loyalty, for a Congress of the president's own party to initiate an impeachment inquiry."
Tribe married Carolyn Ricarda Kreye in 1964. They divorced in 2008. Their two children, Mark and Kerry, are visual artists.
On May 22, 2013, he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Columbia University during its Class of 2013 commencement. He has ten other honorary degrees.
The following is a list of cases Tribe has argued in the U.S. Supreme Court, as of the end of 2005:
Tribe has argued 26 cases in the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals:Books
Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution (2014; co-author with Joshua Matz)
The Invisible Constitution (2008)
American Constitutional Law (treatise; 1978, 1979, 1988, and 2000)
On Reading the Constitution (1991; co-author with Michael Dorf)
Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes (1990)
Constitutional Choices (1985)
God Save This Honorable Court: How the Choice of Supreme Court Justices Shapes Our History (1985)
The Supreme Court: Trends and Developments (1979, 1980, 1982, 1983)
When Values Conflict: Essays on Environmental Analysis, Discourse, and Decision (editor; 1976)
The American Presidency: Its Constitutional Structure (1974)
Channeling Technology Through Law (1973)
Environmental Protection (1971; co-author with Louis Jaffe)
Technology: Processes of Assessment and Choice (1969)