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Story Behind the Book

Harvard Law teacher Laurence Tribe delves into Supreme Court

David Wilson for the boston globe/Laurence Tribe credit David Wil

Many Americans misunderstand the Supreme Court, and Laurence Tribe is tired of it.

“It’s an institution that completely has the potential to transform the way we live — whom we can marry, whether a woman can control her reproductive destiny, to what extent the government can follow us around — all of these things are dependent on this institution of nine people,” he said in a telephone interview. “I thought it was important to write a book that would tackle these issues in a way that you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand.”

Tribe, who has taught at Harvard Law School since 1968, is talking about “Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution,” co-written with Joshua Matz.


Eschewing the vote-counting, politically-informed narrative of how the court works, Tribe and Matz look instead at the way individual justices formulate their opinions, teasing out the key constitutional arguments and legal fault lines that run through the big issues the group will face in upcoming sessions, including gun rights, privacy, and marriage equality.

“These are judgment calls,” Tribe said. “The cases that are easy don’t get to the Supreme Court.” And because they are so complicated and important, he said, “It matters a great deal what the reasoning of the justices is.”

Tribe clerked for Justice Potter Stewart in the late 1960s and has since argued more than two dozen cases before the Supreme Court. His former boss, he said, might see today’s court as “a little too certain of itself in certain areas, not quite as humble as it should be.”

“But he would certainly appreciate how smart the justices are,” Tribe said, and how seriously they take their task. Unlike Congress, which is pretty much paralyzed, these nine people are busy working. It’s a very functional institution.”

Tribe will read from the new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at