Prof. Robert L. Tsai

Professor of Law, American University Washington College of Law

Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University and a prize-winning essayist in constitutional law and history. Though he was born in Taiwan, he has always considered America his home. In fact, one of the proudest moments of his life was the day he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Tsai spent his formative years in the Pacific Northwest, working in his parents’ cafe in charming Port Townsend, Washington, and dreaming about the world beyond his small town. He left the area for college and earned a B.A. magna cum laude in History and Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received the Carey McWilliams Prize for his honors thesis on the political significance of early Christian teachings.

He then headed to Yale Law School, where he helped edit the Yale Law Journal, served on the Board of the Morris Tyler Moot Court, and was awarded Honorable Mention for Oral Advocacy as a Harlan Fiske Stone Prize Finalist. After graduating from law school, he learned the intricacies of America’s justice system by working as a law clerk for federal judges in New York and Boston: U.S. District Judge Denny Chin (later appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit) and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Hugh H. Bownes (a Carter appointee who passed away in 2003).

After two years of judicial tutelage, Tsai relocated to the South to become a civil rights lawyer in Georgia. Those exhilarating years working with students, clergy, protesters, prisoners, and the homeless left a lasting impression. His first teaching gig was at the University of Oregon Law School, where he earned tenure, along with awards for teaching and research from the law school and the university.

Tsai is the author of three books, Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation (W.W. Norton Feb. 19, 2019), America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard 2014), and Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture (Yale 2008). Practical Equality, which will be published by W.W. Norton in February 2019, is a call to arms to do the hard work of equality, brimming with historical lessons for how to make social progress in tough times. America’s Forgotten Constitutions, which explores how citizens have written a wide range of alternative constitutions to resist mainstream constitutional law, has been called “captivating,” “magisterial,” and “a remarkable feat of excavation.” Eloquence and Reason, his book on the development of America’s free speech values, has been described as “fresh,” “sophisticated,” and “compelling.”

Tsai’s research spans constitutional law, legal history, democratic theory, American political culture, social movements, criminal procedure, presidential leadership, and radical constitutionalism. He has written about the legal obstacles placed in the way of black civil rights activists, President Franklin Roosevelt and freedom of religion, the philosophy of John Brown and his followers, modern white supremacy and the militia movement, the Republic of New Afrika’s ideas about the Constitution, the historical treatment of migrants, early socialism in America, the rise and fall of the “one world” movement, President Obama’s reversal on same-sex marriage, and ideas of equality in the poetry and fiction of Langston Hughes.

His work has been published by the Journal of American History, Contemporary Political Theory, Constitutional Commentary, Perspectives on Politics, Yale Law Journal, Michigan Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, Washington University Law Review, and Boston University Law Review. His popular essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Politico, Boston Review, and Slate. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, NPR, and CNN. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.