The Joe Biden Plagiarism Case

How a Law School Paper and Presidential Stump Speeches Derailed a Campaign

Sen. Joe Biden delivers a speech as Sen. Barack Obama listens. (Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images)
Frank Polich/Getty Images

Long before Joe Biden was tapped to be Barack Obama's vice president, and long before he began testing the waters for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, the lawmaker from Delaware got caught up in a plagiarism scandal that derailed his first campaign for the White House in 1987.

Later in his political career, Biden described his 1987 campaign as an embarrassing "train wreck" and put the plagiarism case behind him, but his use of others' work without attribution became an issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Joe Biden Acknowledges Plagiarism in Law School

Biden first publicly acknowledged plagiarizing another author's work during his bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Biden "used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution" in a paper he claimed to have written as a first-year student at the Syracuse University College of Law, according to a faculty report on the incident issued at the time.

The article Biden plagiarized, "Tortious Acts as a Basis for Jurisdiction in Products Liability Cases," was initially published in the Fordham Law Review in May 1965. Among the sentences Biden used without appropriate attribution, according to a New York Times report, was:

"The trend of judicial opinion in various jurisdictions has been that the breach of an implied warranty of fitness is actionable without privity, because it is a tortious wrong upon which suit may be brought by a non-contracting party."

Biden apologized to his law school when he was a student and said his actions was unintentional. On the campaign trail 22 years later, he told the press before abandoning his campaign: "I was wrong, but I was not malevolent in any way. I did not intentionally move to mislead anybody. And I didn't. To this day I didn't."

Joe Biden Accused of Plagiarizing Campaign Speeches

Biden was also said to have used without attribution substantial portions of speeches by Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, as well as British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, in his own stump speeches in 1987. Biden said those claims were "much ado about nothing" but eventually quit his campaign for for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination on Sept. 23, 1987, amid scrutiny of his record.

Among the similarities with Kinnock that came under scrutiny, according to The Telegraph newspaper, was this Biden turn of phrase:

"Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university? Why is it that my wife ... is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? ... Is it because they didn't work hard? My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come after 12 hours and play football for four hours? It's because they didn't have a platform on which to stand."

The Kinnock speech reads:

"Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because our predecessors were thick? Does anybody really think that they didn't get what we had because they didn't have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment? Of course not. It was because there was no platform upon which they could stand."

Plagiarism Cases An Issue in 2016 Campaign

The plagiarism cases were long forgotten until Biden, who was vice president at the time, began testing the waters for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump asked how he'd fare against Biden in a general election in August 2015, brought up Biden's plagiarism.

Trump said:

"I think I'd matchup great. I'm a job producer. I've had a great record, I haven't been involved in plagiarism. I think I would match up very well against him."

Neither Biden nor his campaign commented on Trump's statement.