Last Wednesday, a largely overlooked chapter of the circus surrounding the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court unfolded: “A Short Section in Neil Gorsuch's 2006 Book Appears to be Copied from a Law Review Article” wrote Buzzfeed. “Gorsuch's Writings Borrow from Other Authors” proclaimed Politico. No matter how much these articles couch their claims, any student familiar with Princeton University’s Honor Code could conclude only one thing after reading the passages in question: Gorsuch plagiarized.
In the articles, side-by-side analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s writings with Abigail Lawlis Kuzma’s legal article, “The Legislative Response to Infant Doe,” demonstrates near word-for-word replications — sometimes down to the ellipses — of several paragraphs and footnotes Kuzma wrote describing Down’s Syndrome.
As Princeton’s Rights, Rules, Responsibilities makes eminently clear, “Any ideas or facts which are borrowed should be specifically acknowledged in a footnote or in the text, even if the idea or fact has been further elaborated by the student.” Moreover, “[a]ny quotations, however small, must be placed in quotation marks” and “[a]ny material which is paraphrased or summarized must also be specifically acknowledged in a footnote or in the text.” Gorsuch’s writing clearly does not meet this bar that every Princeton student subscribes to when they produce original academic work.
This makes it even more surprising, then, that one of Princeton’s most admired and well-known professors, Robert George — an influential conservative legal scholar — seems at best unfamiliar, and at worst, disinterested, with the University’s high standards for academic honesty. The Politico article writes, “‘Judge Gorsuch did not attempt to steal other people’s intellectual property or pass off ideas or arguments taken from other writers as his own,’ said George. ‘In no case did he seek credit for insights or analysis that had been purloined. In short, not only is there no fire, there isn’t even any smoke.’”
With all due respect to Professor George, “attempting to steal other people’s intellectual property” or “seek[ing] credit for insights or analysis that had been purloined” is not the standard set for plagiarism at the institution where he teaches and builds much of his reputation.
Professor George surely is familiar with this standard. As a student in his highly regarded Constitutional Interpretation class last semester, a course as renowned for its exacting standards as for Professor George’s insight, I and every other student in the class wrote after each paper we submitted, “This paper represents my work in accordance with University regulations.”
Why should students in Professor George’s classes be held to a higher standard than the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States? Princeton’s academic standards were certainly high enough for current Justices and Princeton alumni Samuel Alito ‘72, Elena Kagan ‘81, and Sonia Sotomayor ‘76.
This plagiarism scandal is disappointing on several levels. As a newly-minted member of the Supreme Court, Judge Gorsuch will be a role model whose honesty will be relied on as he interprets the laws that bind us together. Particularly for someone whose mode of judicial interpretation, originalism, depends on fastidious attention to detail, research, and historical accuracy, Judge Gorsuch’s casual plagiarism bodes poorly for a real commitment to an objective, as opposed to an ideologically-driven, mode of interpreting the Constitution.
For the Princeton community, Professor George’s stance is especially disappointing. While he is entitled to espouse his opinions, that Professor George would use his platform as a Princeton University professor to defend Judge Gorsuch’s plagiarism undermines the very academic freedom he utilizes. Again, from RRR: "Academic freedom can flourish only in a community of scholars which recognizes that intellectual integrity, with its accompanying rights and responsibilities, lies at the heart of its mission".
In his classes, Professor George pushes students to find modes of judicial interpretation that are logically consistent and methodological, not ideologically determined. His willingness to compromise his academic standards to suit partisan ends — not in defense of Judge Gorsuch’s judicial credentials, but in defense of an unambiguous case of plagiarism — calls into question the very nature of what he teaches.
It does not matter that the plagiarism in question is seemingly trivial. Judge Gorsuch repeatedly used Kuzma’s words without citation in an article, his dissertation, and a published book that helped build his reputation.
The first offense for a Princeton student in a plagiarism case would typically lead to a year-long suspension. For Judge Gorsuch, the punishment appears to be a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States. For Professor George and Princeton, however, the punishment may be a lasting stain on his personal and on Princeton’s academic reputations.
Daniel Krane is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Chestnut Hill, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.