Below is the first installment in a multi-part series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first two installments consist of an unconventional biographical profile of the Judge. These posts will be followed by a series of posts consisting of the Judge’s candid and often unexpected responses to numerous questions I posed to him along with those of 24 noted legal figures. In the process, Judge Posner bursts into the breach with frankness about his views on privacy, the exclusionary rule, NYT v. Sullivan, intellectual property rights, law and economics, constitutional interpretation, legal education and scholarship, and the politicization of the judiciary. With Posnerian resolve, he also speaks of his own life, his onetime thoughts on being a Supreme Court Justice, his cherished feline, and even his favorite rock stars. Given all that, we selected “Posner on Posner” as the title for this series.
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A man[’s] . . . thinking should be
cosmopolitan and detached. He should
be able to criticize what he reveres and loves.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., February 4, 1901
He is like no other. Cool, calm, and calculating (in a methodical sense, that is). To watch him, one might think him shy, if only because of the way he averts his blue eyes when speaking. His complexion is fair (sun sensitive), which makes for a striking contrast to the dark suits he often dons. His appearance is ordinary, highlighted only by a blue Oxford linen shirt and wide-framed rectangular glasses. He speaks in a measured manner and while his voice can be monotonic, his oral style can fluctuate from serious to humorous. At times, his expression is flat, though once and a while a chuckle erupts, prompted by some folly he underscores or some hypocrisy he exposes while discussing this or that point or person. His public conversations with others can seem singular; they smack of a man thinking aloud.
Candor is his calling card, print is his preferred medium, and the moves of the mind are his raison d’être. One is reminded, in a fleeting philosophical sense, of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The “atypical . . . manner and character” of both men only adds to the resemblance. That said, there is one big difference: He is no parlor philosopher; he is a man who lives to transform ideas into action.
To some, he is an irritating gadfly. To others, he is a cold-blooded pragmatist. To many, he is an enemy of liberalism, while to many others he is a foe of conservatism. To more sensitive types, his economics-grounded “thinking is inevitably without compassion and often cruel.” To more cerebral types he is “our most prominent rationalist.” To those whose world is divided along uncompromising ideological lines, his views on the Second Amendment are horrendous and tyrannical, even if he is quite libertarian when it comes to legalizing marijuana, “cocaine, heroin, methamphetamime, LSD, and the rest of the illegal drugs.” To still others, he is a mental maverick gunning for any kind of specious arguments (especially self-righteous ones) that pass for gospel. And to yet others, he is the only one who dares to describe law as it is here on mortal earth rather than how it might be in some utopian salon. In that realist respect, there is even a Machiavellian streak in him.
He is, to be sure, an acquired taste. Even to those who know him, there is a distant quality about his personality. Perhaps because of that, those who know him appreciate his wit and playfulness all the more. Not one to hand out a diplomatic compliment, merit is the measure that rules his life.
Past as Prelude
He is Richard Posner. At 75, the New York City born jurist shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, his cerebral game is as good or better than it was in 1959 when he graduated summa cum laude from Yale College at age 20 (he was an English major with an avid interest in Yeats) or when he graduated first in his class from Harvard Law School in 1962 (he was President of the Harvard Law Review).
His credentials as a young man all signaled future greatness – law clerk to Justice William J. Brennan (1962-63 Term), assistant to Commissioner Philip Elman of the Federal Trade Commission (1963-65), and assistant to Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall (1965-67). In that capacity and others, he wrote some 40 briefs and argued ten cases before the Supreme Court. The cases he argued were:
- Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission (1966) (audio here)
- Accardi v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co. (1966) (audio here)
- United States v. Von’s Grocery Co. (1966) (audio here)
- First National Bank v. Walker Bank (1966) (audio here)
- Illinois Central R. Co. v. Norfolk & W.R. Co. (1966) (audio here)
- Honda v. Clark (1967)(audio here)
- United States v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co. (1967)
- Will v. United States (1967)
- Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n. (1968)
- National Broiler Marketing Association v. United States (1978) (Frank H. Easterbrook was on the brief for the government on the other side)
Posner also served as general counsel on President Johnson’s Task Force on Communications Policy (1967-68). Soon enough the legal academy beckoned him, first as an associate law professor at Stanford (1968-1969) and later as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School (1969-1981). It was during that time that at age 34 he published his momentous work, Economic Analysis of the Law (1973) (now in its 9th edition).
As if all of that were not enough, “Posner augmented his professional life . . . found[ing] Lexecon Inc., a [profitable] consulting firm that tried to put into practice [his law and economic] theories. A large portion of Lexecon’s early business, when he was still a partner, was advising companies as to whether their competitive practices would run afoul of antitrust laws.” In late October of 1981, after his time in the legal academy, Posner then pursued a judicial path as a Ronald Reagan appointee to the Seventh Circuit. In the process, he traded wealth for fame – not what one typically expects from a unapologetic cost-benefit capitalist.
One more thing: In 2006 the ever-colorful Judge stared as an avatar in Second Life, an online virtual community.
The Brennan Clerkship
I was a little disappointed in the Supreme Court. I had a
more elevated opinion of it as a law student than it merited.
To return to his clerkship with Justice Brennan: It came to him via Paul Freund (1908-1992), the famed Harvard professor of constitutional law. In those days it was customary for certain law professors to select law clerks for some of the Justices, this even without a prior clerkship. Young Posner (age 23) was one of Freund’s two picks.
Once he arrived in Washington, D.C., Posner went to work on a variety of jobs for Justice Brennan. It has been reported that during that time he “wrote up an opinion arguing the reverse of Brennan’s [initial sense of the] decision.” Things worked out, nonetheless, and the clerk’s opinion proved “so compelling that Brennan and the Court changed their minds and adopted it.” That unanimous opinion, replete with 83 footnotes, was Sanders v. United States (1963), a habeas corpus case.
Posner also had a hand in writing another habeas case, Fay v. Noia (1963). And then there was NAACP v. Button (1963), a First Amendment civil rights case he authored. For Harry Kalven (1914-1974), the renowned First Amendment scholar, the Button opinion was an important one. “The Court,” he wrote in The Negro and the First Amendment (1965), “offers a generous view of the range of First Amendment protection, a view which seems to me to be indisputably correct although the Court had never previously been given an appropriate occasion for announcing it.” Kalven found it “exciting” that the opinion appeared to break “new ground.”
In a 2013 interview Posner reminisced about his clerkship at the Court: “The most significant experience of my clerkship was happening to work on a case assigned to Justice Brennan, an antitrust case called United States v. Philadelphia National Bank (1963) [the vote was 5-1-2 with Justice White not participating and Justice Harlan dissenting]. And working on that greatly stimulated my interest in antitrust law, and my time in Washington after the clerkship – I was there for another five years – I was mostly concerned with antitrust issues. So that was, I’d say, the most significant experience I had at the Supreme Court.”
Four Brennan-Posner opinions – there is a certain irony here, namely, that these opinions were written by a law clerk who when he became a judge refused to permit his own law clerks to write his judicial opinions. Then again, as Judge Posner once quipped, “Life is full of surprises . . . .”
Richard Posner is a man of the mind. He welcomes the challenges of complexity; he takes pride in showing the hollowness of legal abstractions; and he loves to simplify the complex without leaving it senseless. Speaking in a soft but nonetheless deliberate tone, he delights in exposing babble masquerading as legal argument, and can be rather relentless when counsel persists in being evasive (see, e.g., here).
In a legal world divided, on the one hand, by jurists who demand the rigidities of rules in matters of interpretation, and jurists who, on the other hand, insist on the flexibility of standards, Posner readily sidesteps ideological boundaries. As he sees it, such disputes are better understood as psychological in character than logical in nature. He prefers a more pragmatic contextual approach. To draw upon his own words in MindGames Inc. v. Western Publishing Co. (2000): “some activities are better governed by rules, others by standards.” Thus, in MindGames the Court declined to be bound by a 1924 rule regarding new businesses and lost profits.
Another Posnerian trait: He is not oblivious to the obvious, even when others are. And he does not hesitate to speak sternly when the circumstances warrant it, as in a class actions case (Eubank v. Saltzman) involving a lawyer who took far too many liberties. There, Posner used the opportunity of the controversy to demonstrate the factual oddities and ethical problems with the case, this while offering several learned yet pragmatic observations about this body of the law and its efficient operation. He did much the same in another class action case (Redman v. Radio Shack Corporation) in which he was quite critical of a settlement that offered Radio Shack customers about $830,000 worth of coupons while offering the lawyers who negotiated it $1 million. He was equally outspoken in a recent copyright case (Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd.). And his edgy wit and probing reasoning were much apparent in a pair of recent same-sex marriage cases (Baskin v. Bogan and Wolf v. Walker) in which he was particularly hard on the counsel for the state during oral arguments in those cases.
Color him with many stripes. Posner relishes the study of economics; he savors the lure of literature; he delights in clearing the air polluted by scandalous politics; he enjoys applying his free-market thinking to explain the various economic crises of our time; he relishes the chance to confront head on those issues that bedevil cultural critics; and he loves his life in the law (be it jurisprudence, antitrust, intellectual property, regulatory law, patent law, labor law, criminal law, or constitutional law). In a world increasingly bereft of public intellectuals, he rises from the lifeless ashes like a modern-day Phoenix. True to that cerebral calling, Posner has personal opinions, often controversial, on everything from sexual behavior to judicial behavior and beyond to subjects as diverse as terrorism, global warming, aging, moral and literary theory, and even the risks of catastrophic harm due to an asteroid colliding with the earth.
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