Unreasonable doubt


THIS WEEK I WAS TOLD THAT some at Harvard Law Review suspect that I am a plagiarist. A thief.

On Friday, my editor and I received a letter from a member of the Review. He wrote in reaction to my Feb. 19 column comparing Judge William Hastie, a black man “too conservative” for a Kennedy-era Supreme Court nomination, with filibustered nominee Miguel Estrada. I won’t name the source, but I will reproduce here the guts of his message:

[Y] our column certainly reminds me of the Note I authored for the upcoming issue of the Harvard Law Review. Several persons (big and small) have been struck by the similarities between the vignette that opens my own work and “[t]he story of Judge William Hastie” presented in your column.

Although I certainly do not “own” Hastie’s story, I am quite sure I own my *historiography*.

I would like to believe that you stumbled upon this rather esoteric bit of history … without any prompting from someone within the Review. Help me to convince those who would doubt you.

[Signature Redacted]

(This email, of course, is not meant for public consumption.)

The following response, of course, is meant for public consumption.

To disappoint any who may have hoped otherwise, I wrote my own column. I’ve never heard of (let alone seen) the student’s note.

I learned of the story of Judge Hastie on Jan. 29, reading Henry Abraham’s Justices, Presidents, and Senators (pages 209 and 220) on Amtrak en route to Washington (where – I tell you in the interests of full disclosure – I discussed the story with two friends at Shelley’s Back Room and enjoyed a fine Cuban cigar). In writing the column I relied on Dennis Hutchinson’s “The Ideal New Frontier Judge,” 1997 SUP. CT. REV. 373, 377-83, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Robert Kennedy and His Times, Sheldon Goldman’s Picking Federal Judges, and some biographical information found on the Tennessee State web site.

In short, I didn’t plagiarize a “leaked” draft of a Law Review Note.

That should “convince those who would doubt” me. Then again, I delivered this same message to the author of the email days ago, and I have yet to receive any sort of acknowledgement from any of the “doubters.”

What hubris, these accusers! Consider a similar situation: if a Hastie-related Note had appeared in the Review six months after I wrote the column, I never would have marched to Gannett House with a band of “doubters” to demand proof that the work was original.

And if I had demanded proof, would the Editors gladly hand over their files for my inspection? I think we know how they would respond to such a demand.

I won’t spill any more ink on this attack on my character. The self-importance of these people is self-evident.

* * *

I will take a moment to discuss, however, a second charge implicit in their suspicions: by accusing me of using leaked Review materials for my column, they accuse some among their own ranks of conspiring with me.

Because of this column, I can respond with swift and proportionate force to attacks on my character. But my would-be co-conspirators enjoy no such forum. Instead, those members of Law Review must sit quietly and wonder whether the “doubters” see them as suspects.

So I’m going to provide them with a forum, and with a defense.

Never has a Review editor leaked information to me. I’ve never asked anyone to do that, and none of my friends or acquaintances on the Review ever would comply with such a silly request. The paranoia of those “big and small” editors who imagined me conspiring with a Gannett House cabal is amusing, but dangerous. Any editor in a position to leak the Hastie note to me was, whether they knew it or not, a suspect.

As I said above, I’ve received no apology for the unfounded suspicions and rumor-mongering. I don’t expect one. But to my doubters, I say this: you owe a public apology to your fellow editors who you suspected of conspiring with me.

To those who were (whether you knew it or not) targets of such rumor and innuendo, I say this: think for a moment about the type of people who would accuse you of dishonesty and inappropriate behavior. I’m not sure who the accusers had their sights set on, but their eagerness to doubt fellow editors (and me) without compelling evidence should shock your conscience.

Sadly, you Editors who were suspected of leaking the Hastie not to me probably didn’t even know about this fiasco until today. You probably had no idea that “those who would doubt” me would be the first to doubt them, too. Your accusers, at least in my experience, seem to prefer to gossip about it for a few days before confronting the targets of their suspicion.

* * *

I would have preferred to deal with this quietly, but I had no choice. HLS is a small community where rumors can spread quickly. Given that the original “doubts” were premised on the notion that Review editors would leak private matters to this outsider, I saw no reason to trust that doubters “big and small” would not leak rumors of plagiarism, too.

So, I could have emailed my explanation to the Editor who contacted me, but would the Review go out of its way to forward a my private response to everyone who conceivably could have heard the rumor that had started days earlier?

Pardon me, but I had my “doubts.”

For how long should I and my nameless would-be co-conspirators sit idly while an assortment of self-important whisperers tarnish our character?

Not for a moment longer.

Those who continue to doubt my ability to write my own columns are welcome to discuss their doubts with me, in person.

Adam White is the Record’s Editorial Page Editor. His column appears weekly.