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 currently working on two book projects: Equality By Other Means, a work of constitutional law and democratic theory, and Trump’s Ascent: The Politics of Rage and Restoration, which explores President Trump’s style of governance against the backdrop of conservative social movements.

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

  • 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)