Four years ago, Washington attorney F. Whitten Peters got a call from a professor under whom he had studied at Harvard Law School. "He wanted to talk with someone who had done an appellate argument," Peters recalled yesterday. "He wanted to know how to do one."
Wednesday, the professor, Laurence H. Tribe, showed he'd learned how to "do one." Tribe won his third important Supreme Court ruling in six months: a landmark decision allowing states to regulate nuclear power. Combined with his victory two years ago, when the court declared for the first time that the press and the public had a right of access to criminal trials, Tribe's record already goes far beyond what most lawyers achieve in a lifetime.
There is another image of Tribe, though, one depicted in a cartoon in the "American Lawyer" two years ago. It showed the Harvard professor standing on a table at the Supreme Court passing out press releases about himself.
That caricature is of Larry Tribe the publicity hound. Reporters had barely begun to digest Wednesday's ruling, for example, when their telephones started ringing with sweeping statements of victory from Tribe.
This is the image that recently inspired a student to ask jokingly in class whether Tribe would continue teaching after he won his appointment to the Supreme Court. His answer--amid the laughter--was inaudible.
Tribe can take the ribbing. Most professors are thrilled just to be cited in an opinion. Tribe's 1,200-page book, "American Constitutional Law," is probably cited more frequently in opinions and briefs than any other recent volume on the subject.
The day after the nuclear power ruling, for example, Justice John Paul Stevens referred to the book to support his decision striking down Ohio's early ballot-filing deadline for independent presidential candidates.
It was the book, Tribe says, that brought him his first cases when it was published in 1977. Now he says he has many more requests for representation than he can possibly handle. And, though he lost a major busing case last term and a less important religious freedom case, his record this year is likely to increase the demand.
He won't say what he gets paid. But he notes he "has the luxury of saying 'no' if I don't agree with the position" or if he finds the case uninteresting.
The 41-year-old lawyer was born in Shanghai, China, where his parents immigrated as Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. His father was a Ford salesman there. When Tribe was 5, his family moved to San Francisco.
He enrolled Harvard at 16, graduated summa cum laude in mathematics and began graduate studies. But he said he found math "too lonely a pursuit," and switched to the Harvard Law School after one year.
He clerked first for Justice Mathew O. Tobriner of the California Supreme Court and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Later, Tribe became "the man to see" for Harvard students who wanted to clerk for Stewart.
Then, in 1977, came his mammoth book, not just a textbook loaded with cases but a highly personalized "Structure for Liberty," as Tribe subtitled it. Tribe said he thought about it for five years and wrote it in nine months.
"It is a road map of where he wants the Supreme Court to go," said one constitutional scholar who asked not to be named.
It has been praised as brilliant and innovative; some critics say it is more slanted, toward liberalism, than a scholarly work ought to be.
While Tribe says he is not ideological, he sees himself as an advocate for "the oppressed." His two other victories this term were on behalf of residency requirements designed to increase minority hiring among city contractors in Boston and a popular Cambridge tavern's successful challenge to the right of a church to veto liquor license applications.
One of Tribe's newest clients is the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who was convicted last May on tax fraud charges. Tribe is defending him on the grounds of religious freedom.
With all of this activity, Tribe has remained a prolific writer and busy teacher, with two constitutional law courses this term. "You have to strap youself in your seat and hang on," said a current student. His ideas "whiz by so fast."
Tribe said that sometimes both sides of a case try to retain his services.
Thus, a spoof in the "Harvard Law School Record" April Fool's Day told how Tribe showed up in the Supreme Court to argue one side of a case called Some Civil Libertarian Group vs. Some Other Civil Libertarian Group, only to discover when he finished that he had agreed to argue the other side as well.
The satire went on to quote Tribe as saying: " 'What could I do? I just stood back up, approached the bench, and said, 'May it please the court, my name is still Larry Tribe . . . .' "
The satire concluded: " 'At least I won,' he chuckled."