Robert Tsai

Professor of Law

Office: Room Y224
Phone: 202-274-4370
Email: vCard

Robert L. Tsai began his academic career at the University of Oregon, where he received the university's Lorry I. Lokey Award for exemplary interdisciplinary scholarship and the law school's Orlando J. Hollis Teaching Award. His papers have twice been selected for the Stanford-Yale Junior Faculty Forum: once in constitutional theory and once in constitutional history. Professor Tsai joined the law faculty of American University in 2008 and was promoted to full professor the following year. He received the Elizabeth Payne Cubberly Scholarship Award in 2010. His articles have appeared in the Yale Law Journal, Michigan Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, Boston University Law Review, Iowa Law Review, and Constitutional Commentary.

Professor Tsai is working on his third book, Equality By Other Means (W.W. Norton 2019), which explores why we have such a difficult time doing the work of egalitarianism and recommends pragmatic second-best solutions to break an ideological gridlock. This is a work of constitutional law and political theory.

He is also working on a major book project that details how presidents seize a leadership role over the development of constitutional rights and liberties. His latest article in this area is “Obama’s Conversion on Same-Sex Marriage: The Social Foundations of Individual Rights,” 50 Connecticut Law Review (forthcoming 2018).

Before entering the academy, he clerked for Hugh H. Bownes, U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and Denny Chin, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Professor Tsai has litigated a number of constitutional issues before federal and state courts.

Professor Tsai's primary research interests include constitutional law, legal history, democratic theory, and criminal procedure. Professor Tsai’s latest book, America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard University Press, 2014), examines eight alternative constitutions written by groups of Americans and the theories of popular sovereignty expressed in those documents. The popular theorists who authored these constitutions include early settlers, Native Americans, socialists, John Brown, slaveholders, the followers of Malcolm X, white separatists living in the Pacific Northwest, and intellectuals led by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the former President of the University of Chicago. The Texas Law Review hailed the book as “a remarkable feat of excavation” (Aziz Rana, Cornell Law), and the Daily Beast called it “counterfactual in the best sense,” painting a “picture [of American constitutionalism that] is far richer than the grim founder worship usually found in American political orthodoxy." Professor Susan McWilliams (Pomona-Politics) called America’s Forgotten Constitutions a “magisterial work…surely one of the most captivating works on American political thought and American constitutional history to be written in the last several years.

His first book, Eloquence and Reason: Creating a First Amendment Culture (Yale University Press 2008), theorizes the rise of Americans' modern First Amendment value system and the role of courts in sustaining that system. In particular, he shows how activists, presidents, and lawyers adapt constitutional rhetoric to serve their goals. Some of these changes to First Amendment language have been laudable, while other shifts are troubling from the standpoint of democratic theory. In reviewing the book, Perspectives in Politics observed: “The argument is fresh, the writing is sophisticated, and the theory presented is subtle in its complexity."

Areas of Specialization

  • Constitutional Law
  • Civil Rights
  • Criminal Procedure
  • Jurisprudence
  • Law and the Social Sciences
  • Legislation & Law of the Political Process

Degrees & Universities

  • J.D., Yale Law School 1997
  • B.A., University of California at Los Angeles 1993 (magna cum laude; Phi Beta Kappa; Highest Departmental Honors; Carey McWilliams Award for Best History Honors Thesis)