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.

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,” 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."

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

  • 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; Highest Departmental Honors)

  • Selected Publications

    • + More Publications...

  • + Selected Presentations

    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Fiction as Dissent: Simple Takes on the Supreme Court (Conference: The Art & Politics of Irony, Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, McGill U., Montreal, Que., Apr. 13, 2012).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Why Study Failed Constitutions? John Brown’s Vision for America (William & Mary L. Sch., Bill of Rights Institute, Williamsburg, Va., Nov. 10, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Commenter, First Amendment and Fallen Heroes: The Unpleasant Case of Snyder v. Phelps (American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Balt., Oct. 21, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, When We Talk About War (Constitutional Law Roundtable, American Constitution Society, George Washington U. L. Sch., D.C., June 16, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Forms of Popular Sovereignty (Conference: Popular Sovereignty and American Democracy, Inaugural Conference of American Democracy Forum, U. of Wis., Madison, Wis., May 25, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Non-Territorial Forms of American Sovereignty (U. of Wash. L. Sch., Seattle, Wash., Apr. 21, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Clason Lecture, Lessons from the Indian Stream Republic (Western New England College of Law, Springfield, Mass., Mar. 3, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Two Alternative Republics (Rutgers University Law School, Camden, N.J., Feb. 7, 2011).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, 'One Good World': Deploying the American Experience to Undermine the Nation-State (Midwest Constitutional Law Discussion Group, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., Oct. 22, 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Address, Dealing With Democratic Heartbreak (Conference, “How Rhetoric Shapes the Law: Pedagogy, Theory, Practice,” American University Washington College of Law, D.C., Oct. 15, 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Pioneer Constitutionalism (D.C. Area Legal History Roundtable, Georgetown University Law Center, D.C., Oct. 8, 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Panelist, Dreams of White Forefathers (Law & Society Association Panel, “Uses of the Past in Constitutional Discourse,” Chi., May 29, 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Legal Studies Workshop, America’s Forgotten Constitutions (Stanford Law School, Stanford, Cal., Mar. 8, 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Colloquium, America’s Forgotten Constitutions (University of Connecticut Law School, Hartford, Conn., Jan. 20. 2010).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, John Brown’s Constitution (Symposium: “John Brown Remembered: 150 Year Anniversary of the Raid on Harper’s Ferry,” Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., Oct. 16, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, The Northwest Homeland (Loyola Law School, L.A., Sept. 10, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Author Meets Readers, Eloquence and Reason (Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association, Denver, Colo., May 28-31, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, The Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship (Symposium: "Contested Citizenship," University of Oregon School of Law, Eugene, Or., May 7-8, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Eloquence and Reason (Wayne Morse Center for Law & Politics, University of Oregon, Eugene, Or., May 6, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Constitutional Borrowing (Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, Bos., Apr. 4, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Author Meets Readers, Eloquence and Reason (Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, Bos., Apr. 3, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Two Arguments Against Tolerance (Symposium: Religion and the State," Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy/Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions, U. of Wis., Madison, Wis., Mar. 27-28, 2009).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Constitutional Borrowing (University of Baltimore Law School, Balt., Oct. 23, 2008).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Reconsidering Gobitis (Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum, New Haven, Conn., June 21, 2008).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, John Brown’s Constitution (Constitutional Law Discussion Group, University of Maryland School of Law, Balt., Mar. 8, 2008).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Colloquium, Reconsidering Gobitis (Georgetown University Law Center, D.C., Feb. 20, 2008).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, How Social Conservatives Remade the Wall of Separation (Symposium: “The 21st Century Brain: Why It Matters for the Academic and Political Worlds,” University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Pitt., Feb. 8, 2008).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Presidential Leadership and Linguistic Transformation (University of Iowa College of Law, Iowa City, Iowa, Sept. 6, 2007).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Gobitis Reconsidered (May Gathering, University of Virginia Law School, Charlottesville, Va., June 1, 2007).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, The Responsive Judiciary (Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, Cal., Apr. 10, 2007).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Colloquium, Measuring Interpretive Plausibility (St. John’s University School of Law, N.Y.C., Mar. 5, 2007).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, First Amendment Borrowing (Distinguished Speakers Series, Seattle University School of Law, Seattle, Wash., Mar. 3, 2006).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Text as One Aspect of a People’s Vocabulary (University of Washington School of Law, Seattle, Wash., Mar. 2, 2006).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, The Irrepressible First Amendment (Chicago-Kent College of Law, Chi., Feb. 8, 2006).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, Eloquence and Reason (St. Louis University School of Law, St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 7, 2006).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Workshop, The Irrepressible First Amendment (Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 6, 2006).
    • Robert Tsai, Panelist, The Irrepressible First Amendment (Panel: “First Amendment Borrowing,” Annual Meeting of the Law & Society Association, Las Vegas, Nev., June 3, 2005).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Metaphor and Democracy (Eighth Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities, Austin, Tex., Mar. 11, 2005).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Fire, Metaphor and Constitutional Myth-Making (Stanford-Yale Junior Faculty Forum, Yale Law School, New Haven, Conn., June 5, 2004).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, Brown, Legitimacy, and Constitutional Culture (Annual Meeting of the Law & Society Association, Chi., May 29, 2004).
    • Robert Tsai, Faculty Colloquium, The First Amendment: Metaphor and Role-Playing (University of California, Davis, King Hall School of Law, Davis, Cal., Oct. 1, 2003).
    • Robert Tsai, Presentation, The Meaning of Judicial Authority (Fourth Annual Public Law Conference, Duke University School of Law, Durham, N.C., Dec. 14, 2002).