I myself am a counterrevolutionary. I am not eager to be sent to the countryside to do farm work while wearing a dunce cap. (2009)
I’m much less reactionary than I used to be. (2014) – Richard Posner
This is the third in a series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, and the second one here. (My interest in Judge Posner goes back almost a quarter century. See Ronald Collins & David O’Brien, “Gauging Reputations, National Law Journal, pp. 13-14, April 1, 1991 (commenting on Posner’s Cardozo book).)
The measure of a man is gauged in different ways. For some, it moves along a spectrum of social approval. For others, it is personal perfection. For a few, it is mastery — that ability to excel in one’s life calling. And then there are those who take public service seriously. For yet others, it is legacy – that long story after the life story. In that journey, whatever one’s direction and destination, a few are bold into the fray, others calculating into the conflict, and still others are quiet into the clash. How we measure them depends on where we stand, how we judge the end game, and just how impartial we are. Then again, how we judge someone may reveal more about us than the person being judged. Bear all that in mind as you read the words of the man — an atypical man — who is the focus of this and the other interviews.
How, then, to measure Richard Posner? It is not an easy task; he is complex. Because of that it is easy to misjudge him. Up close, Posner is unusual. For one thing, his candor can be unnerving. Thus, his personality in one-on-one situations can be odd, unless one is attuned to him, which requires being on his psychological wavelength. For another thing, he is somewhat unconstrained by many social mores. He is, for better or worse, a take-me-as-I-am sort of individual. But give him distance from the province of personality (conventionally defined), and he works well in the world of rules and reasons. That is his domain. In that realm, he appreciates informed judgment and delights in being daring. True to his cerebral bent, he loves to be rational (tag it Aristotelian eros), even if it leaves him the odd man out. In that sense, there is something peculiarly fascinating about him – that rara avis who seizes our attention even when we tend to turn away.
What follows are the first in a series of questions I posed to the Judge about his life and life views. (Note: Some links will open in Firefox or Chrome but not in Safari.)
Question: Were you born Richard Allen Posner, or was Allen your first name? [Hat tip to Professor Peter Irons.]
Posner: That’s true [about being named Allen]. But my parents always called me ‘Dick.'” [RC: The Judge has his law clerks address him as his parents did.]
Question: You were exceptionally revealing in the New Yorker profile that Larissa MacFarquhar did back in 2001 – the story in which, among other things, you described yourself as “an imperfectly house-broken pet.” You also compared yourself to your late Dinah, “playfulbut with a streak of cruelty.” (Dinah has since died.) Two questions:
- Why? What prompted such unconventional candor?
- Do you have any regrets?
- Larissa was very skillful at extracting unguarded comments from me. She is an excellent reporter. [RC: In a 2003 interview with Howard Bashman, Judge Posner said: “MacFarquhar. . . exaggerated my role in the law and economics movement, but that’s fine!”]
Question: In what respects are you most like and unlike your parents?
Posner: I share my mother’s love of literature, and my parents’ lack of religiosity (I believe the word “God” was never mentioned in our home). My father [Max] was introverted, like me. I didn’t share my parents’ politics, which were extremely left-wing. It’s unrealistic to think me much like my parents, as they were born in 1900 and 1901 respectively, into central European families with no money who immigrated shortly afterward to the United States. There is no comparison to my situation at and after birth, by which time (1939) my parents were prosperous, educated, and completely assimilated Americans.
Question: You were an English major at Yale College and did your senior thesis under Cleanth Brooks (the famed figure of literary criticism). Your thesis was on William Butler Yeats’s late poetry. Why English, why Yeats? And tell us a little bit more about you senior thesis – its title and scope.
Posner: My mother [Blanche] was a high school English teacher and started me off on literature when I was an infant — she read Homer and Shakespeare to me from a very early age. I majored in English at Yale because I was already steeped in literature and Yale had the best English department in the country. I discovered Yeats’ poetry and loved it and still do. I don’t recall the title of my senior thesis. I do recall the principal theme, which was that his poetry was “reflexive,” in the sense that much of it, I thought, despite its ostensible subject matter, was about poetry itself, which after all he new best.
Question: What was your draft status? How did you navigate the whole military service matter?
Posner: Deferment was automatic in my day (before the Vietnam War heated up) while one was a student. My first job after graduating from law school was as a law clerk at the Supreme Court. Justice Brennan, my boss, wrote a letter to my draft board before I started the clerkship asking it to defer me for the clerkship, which it did (it didn’t have to). During my clerkship year my wife had our first baby, and at the time (1963) that was an automatic deferment. I never heard further from anyone about the draft.
Question: When you were the president of the Harvard Law Review (vol. 75, 1961-62), several prominent persons (e.g., Alexander Bickel, Felix Frankfurter, and Henry Friendly) published on your watch. Do you have any memorable stories you might share with us?
Posner: Bickel was not a Harvard Law School professor (Yale instead), and I broke with tradition in asking him to write the Foreword to the Supreme Court section in the first issue.
I also got into some trouble with the faculty over publishing a very critical review by Frederick Bernays Wiener of an excellent revision [of Wigmore’s evidence treatise] by John T. McNaughton, one of the law school’s professors (later a key aide to Robert McNamara in the Vietnam War).
Question: Were there any professors you had at Harvard who stood out in your mind? If so, who were they and why do you remember them?
Posner: There were a number of excellent professors: in no particular order they were Paul Bator, John Mansfield, Abraham Kaplan, Derek Bok, Donald Turner, Walter Bart Leach, and (probably the best) John Dawson. I may have forgotten some others who were good. Turner’s field was antitrust, and he had a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. We were friendly. To some extent, he sparked my interest in economic analysis of law.
Question: How did Paul Freund come to select you for a clerkship with Brennan?
Posner: He was an informal adviser to the law review so I got to know him pretty well, though I never had him in class. I was the president of the law review and the highest-ranking student by grades, so I was a natural pick for a Supreme Court clerkship. I didn’t apply—he just picked me. I actually wasn’t particularly interested in clerking.
Question: You worked with Thurgood Marshall while he was Solicitor General. What was your opinion of Mr. Marshall back then?
Posner on Thurgood Marshall
He was a good boss in the sense that he backed the staff, which of course was all I cared about, but had rather little interest in the job. It was just a stepping-stone job. He had been a great trial lawyer, and I don’t think appellate law interested him particularly. Before becoming SG he was on the Second Circuit briefly, and after he was S.G. he, of course, was on the Supreme Court. I don’t think any of those jobs drew on his strengths, which as I say was as a trial lawyer.
Question: While in the S.G.’s Office you argued nine cases before the Supreme Court. Do any of those case stand out in your mind? Are you especially proud of your performance in any of them?
Question: You were general counsel on President Johnson’s Task Force on Communications Policy. How did that come about and what sort of things did you do in that capacity?
Posner: I probably was asked by the staff director, Alan Novak, but I don’t actually remember. My title of “general counsel” had no meaning. The task force had a small staff. I learned a lot of economics from our economist staff member, Leland Johnson, a very smart economist from RAND. I did most of the writing for the report. The report was influential in the deregulation movement, and also led to my being asked to do a good deal of consulting in telecommunication policy during my time as an academic.
Question: What is your sense of the 60s counter-culture? Read More