By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; A09
Prominent Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe will join the Justice Department next week to lead an effort focused on increasing legal access for the poor, two federal sources said Thursday.
Tribe, 68, long viewed as a contender for a Supreme Court nomination in a Democratic administration, will serve as a senior counselor for access to justice.
Tribe, who has taught at Harvard since 1968, referred messages Thursday to a Justice Department spokeswoman. He will take a leave of absence from the law school.
The announcement comes a week after senior leaders at the department appeared at a Washington conference to draw attention to the large caseloads handled by public defenders and other challenges in providing legal services to low-income defendants. Some juvenile offenders, for example, are forced to go to court without seeing a lawyer, officials said.
"Problems in our criminal justice system aren't just morally untenable," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told an audience at the Mayflower Hotel Feb. 18. "They're also economically unsustainable. . . . When the justice system fails to get it right the first time, we all pay, often for years, for new filings, retrials and appeals."
The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases nearly a half century ago, ruled that defendants accused of felony crimes, serious misdemeanors and juvenile offenses must be provided with lawyers if they cannot afford to hire attorneys on their own. But funding shortfalls in many states, exacerbated by the current economic downturn, mean that public defenders often have 100 or more clients, according to Justice Denied, a report by the Constitution Project.
"The fundamental integrity of our justice system depends on equal access to justice and effective representation for all parties," department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. "In fulfilling our responsibility to ensure fairness and integrity in our justice system, the department is launching an access-to-justice initiative to provide a centralized focus to elevate the importance of these issues and take concrete steps to address them."
In recent weeks, speculation within legal circles about Tribe's move to Washington had focused on a troubleshooting role that the law professor might play in hot-button areas, such as national security and international issues. But department officials Thursday said his portfolio would involve domestic affairs, and that he would report to Tom Perrelli, the associate attorney general and a Harvard Law School graduate.
Tribe supported Barack Obama's presidential aspirations and has called the president the most impressive student he taught in a career that spans four decades.
Tribe has served as lead counsel in 35 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, testified before Congress dozens of times and wrote a major treatise on constitutional law. Several of his pro bono cases involved victims rights, including representations of migrant workers injured by large farming companies, tenant farmers in Hawaii who sought land reforms and a group of plaintiffs suing cigarette companies for deliberate deception about the products' health effects.
In 2008, Harvard Law School reported that Tribe had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Tribe has since fully recovered, according to a source familiar with his health, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.