Obama mentor Laurence Tribe unfiltered - and on paper

Judge Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court on August 8, making her the first Latina and third woman to serve on the nation's highest court. Though Sotomayor faced intense questioning from Republicans, the Senate approved her nomination by a wide margin.
Al Kamen
Washinton Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 7:14 PM

Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe minced no words in a May 2009 letter to President Obama, his former student, urging him to nominate Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan to fill retiring justice David Souter's seat on the Supreme Court.

The goal should be to keep Justice Anthony Kennedy "from drifting" to the right, Tribe wrote, which is something Souter was able to do.

But "neither Steve Breyer nor Ruth Ginsburg has much of a purchase on Tony Kennedy's mind," Tribe opined of the justices.

So let's look at the possible candidates, he said in the letter, which was obtained by another former Tribe student, Ed Whelan, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who posted it on his NationalReview.com blog.

How about appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor? "Bluntly put," Tribe said, "she's not nearly as smart as she seems to think she is, and her reputation for being something of a bully could well make her liberal impulses backfire and simply add to the fire power" of the conservative wing of the court.

Maybe you could pick Diane Wood, he wrote, who's really smart, but she's 10 years older than the real standout, Kagan, who combines "intellectual brilliance and political skill." Kagan would be "a much more formidable match for Justice Scalia than Justice Breyer has been - and certainly more than a Justice Sotomayor or a Justice Wood could be."

(Obama chose Sotomayor to replace Souter, and the next year he tapped Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens.)

"If I might add a very brief personal note," Tribe began in a pitch for a job, "I can hardly contain my enthusiasm at your first 100 days," though big challenges remain. "I continue to hope that I can before too long come to play a more direct role in helping you meet those challenges, perhaps in a newly created [Justice Department] position dealing with the rule of law."

Tribe got the newly created job of "senior counselor for access to justice," which, the New York Times reported in April, "has a small staff, a limited budget, little concrete authority and a portfolio far less sweeping than the one he told friends he had hoped to take on in Washington." At least it's steady work.

When we reached Tribe on Thursday, he was still in a dentist's chair at the end of having a root canal. After a pause, trying to decide which was worse, the call or the surgery, he said he "couldn't comment on a personal recommendation made to the president that was leaked."

"Certainly I stand by what I said about Justice Kagan," he commented. "And any attempt to make negative inferences about my views of the other justices - whom I know personally and respect greatly - would be mistaken," he said, and "would fail to take into account the surrounding circumstances." Such as?

"Such as personal conferences with the president," he offered.

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