Tagged: judges


The Promethean Posner – An Interview with the Judge’s Biographer

When one considers that the appellate judge is the central figure in Anglo-American jurisprudence, the dearth of evaluative writing on individual judges that is at once systematic, nonpolitical, and nonpolemical is remarkable. Richard Posner (1990)

This is the eleventh and next-to-last  installment in the Posner on Posner series.

William Domnarski is the author of a forthcoming biography of Judge Richard Posner. The table of contents for that biography is set out at the end of this post.  

Mr. Domnarski is a California-based lawyer who both practices law and teaches English. He is the author of four books:

  1. Swimming in Deep Water: Lawyers, Judges & Our Troubled Legal Profession (American Bar Association, 2014) (See here re Judge Richard Kopf’s comments on this book) 
  2. Federal Judges Revealed (Oxford University Press, 2009)
  3. The Great Justices: 1941-54 — Black, Douglas, Frankfurter and Jackson (University of Michigan Press, 2009)
  4. In the Opinion of the Court (University of Illinois Press, 1996)

Mr. Domnarski has likewise authored many scholarly articles (on law and also on literary criticism), including an article titled “The Correspondence of Henry Friendly and Richard A. Posner 1982-86.” In the Posnerian spirit, in 2012 he published a New York Times op-ed titled “Judges Should Write Their Own Opinions.”

William Domnarski has been a lawyer and legal writer for 30 years. He is the author of three previous books on federal judges, as well as a book on the nature of practicing law. He has a JD from the University of Connecticut School of Law and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Riverside. (Publisher’s statement)

Note: Some of the links below will open in Firefox or Chrome but not in Safari.

Question: How did you first come to know Richard Posner?

William Domnarski

William Domnarski

Domnarski: It was through some correspondence in the late 1980s on Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). I challenged his 1988 Yale Law Journal review essay concerning the novel; he was gracious enough to concede that there was something to my point. A correspondence over the years then ensued.

Question: You have written about Judge Posner before. Tell our readers a little bit about that.

Domnarski: In 1996 I wrote a book on judicial opinions that featured a lengthy chapter on Posner’s opinions. In that chapter I argued that he was writing opinions the likes of which we had never seen before. In that regard, a few years ago I was delighted to find at the Harvard Law School a 1983 letter from Henry Friendly to Posner (they corresponded during the last four years of Friendly’s life) in which Friendly wrote essentially the same thing to Posner, this as part of his assessment that Posner was the greatest appellate judge of his generation.

It was from Judge Friendly . . . that Posner learned the surprising truth that Holmes was wrong when he said that you can live greatly in the law. . . . With judging, Posner feels, you cannot know enough about one thing. The knowledge is too much on the surface because so much is required. To live greatly as an intellectual contributor, Posner has determined that he must go beyond law. William Domnarski (1996)

Question: Oxford University Press is publishing your forthcoming biography (with David McBride as your editor). Had you submitted the book elsewhere or did you go to Oxford because you had published with that house before?

Domnarski: I had a contractual obligation to go to Oxford first with my proposal because it had published my last book. That said, I would gone there anyway because Oxford is so good at what it does.

Question: How long will your biography be?

Domnarski: It will probably be a happy medium, around 125 thousand words [RC: Oxford lists it at 336 pages]. Long books turn most readers off, and a short book just wouldn’t let me cover all that I need to cover.

Question: When is it scheduled for publication?

Domnarski: It should be available sometime during the Spring-Summer of 2015.

Question: What kind of response did you get from the people you were able to interview?

Answer: First of all, almost everyone, wanted to talk to me. There were only three or four people who took a pass, one rather huffily. Nearly everyone I contacted long thought that there was something special about him. It was as though they knew that they would be asked about Posner sometime in the future.

Question: Did you interview any sitting Justices?

Domnarski: In an earlier book, I interviewed Justice Antonin Scalia and then Judge Stephen Breyer about Posner. Thereafter, I met once with Justice Breyer at the Supreme Court, this when I was thinking about taking the Posner biography on as a project.

Question: There was a wide conceptual gap between the thought of the late Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013) and that of the Judge. Did you have an opportunity to interview Professor Dworkin? If so, what can you tell us about that?

Domnarski: I suspect Dworkin would have been willing to talk (only a few have declined), but he was ill when I wrote to him. Thus, I did not get a chance to interview him. I did, nonetheless, talk with some people close to Dworkin. They provided me with some information and insight about how Dworkin responded to Posner when they famously clashed (helmets flashing) at a 1979 conference on the issue of wealth maximization. [RC: See Guido Calabresi, “An Exchange: About Law and Economics: A Letter to Ronald Dworkin“]

Question: What individual(s), living or dead, do you think has had the greatest impact on the Judge’s thinking? And why?

Domnarski: Three great economists come to mind – Aaron Director, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. From them Posner learned economic analysis and the way that it can illuminate the connections, large and small, between economics and the way we live.

Publisher’s Blurb

Now, for the first time, this fascinating figure receives a full-length biographical treatment. In Richard Posner, William Domnarski examines the life experience, personality, academic career, jurisprudence, and professional relationships of his subject with depth and clarity. Domnarski has had access to Posner himself and to Posner’s extensive archive at the University of Chicago. In addition, Domnarski was able to interview and correspond with more than two hundred people Posner has known, worked with, or gone to school with over the course of his career, from grade school to the present day. 


Question: What was the biggest challenge in doing this biography?

Domnarski: The easy answer is the staggering amount of paper I had to push through. I have been on Posner’s slip opinion mailing list (now sent via e-mail) since the late 1980s. I read the opinions as they came out, but once I took on the project I had to read them all over again, this time annotating them – there are some three thousand of them. Then there are the dozens of books and the hundreds of articles. But that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was the ongoing challenge of trying to figure out what mattered in Posner’s career and how I could make that matter to my readers.

Judicial biography is one of the most difficult genres in which to write. Few, if any, writers meet the challenges that the genre presents. In Posner’s case, you are essentially writing a book about someone who sits at a desk and reads and writes. It’s all a judgment call, I guess, about what one thinks matters most. The hope is that one will have answered all or most of the questions the reader will have, and this in an appealing and intelligible way.

Question: What has it been like to work with the Judge in writing this biography? Have there been any awkward moments?

Domnarski: He’s been a prince about cooperating with me. The book is not, however, an authorized biography, by which I mean that I have no obligations to Posner and he has no right to review the manuscript or to insist on changes.

The Judge agreed to give me complete access to his archive at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library. He also agreed to sit for recorded interviews, and to answer any questions I might e-mail him. On that score, I would sometimes send e-mails at eleven or twelve in the evening (California time) and get an immediate response. He also took me through three boxes of childhood memorabilia, including baby pictures and the report cards.

The only moments that could possibly come close to being awkward were a few times when I relayed or just mentioned a story someone told me (I interviewed people dating back to his grade school years). Sometimes he remembered the story differently or said that what I had been told did not happen. Of course, that is not unusual as any biographer knows.


  1. Given the complexity of his character, the volume of his work, and nature of his jurisprudence, how did you go about juggling all those biographical balls while at the same time moving your narrative along?
  1. How analytical will your biography be? That is, are there any extended critiques (by you or others) of his opinions and jurisprudence generally, or is your book largely descriptive?


  1. It was easy enough to write separate chapters on Posner’s early years, such as chapters taking him through high school and then through college at Yale and law school at Harvard. And it was also easy grouping together Posner’s various Washington jobs and then writing a separate and fairly long chapter on his full-time teaching years at Chicago. The hard part was dealing with all those opinions and all those books and articles once he went onto the bench. I’ve tried to move the narrative forward by dividing the mass of work by decades and following different themes and threads in each decade so that the reader always has something fresh.
  1. I analyze why his opinions are special and try to pinpoint his contributions to the law by looking at the way his opinions have been used by other circuit court judges. I also track how the Supreme Court has responded to his opinions when they were reviewed by the High Court. This is as part of my broader interest in tracking a kind of marketplace response to his jurisprudence. I do the same with his many books. I don’t argue, though, that he is the most influential judge of his time or that he is the most respected. I take these points as givens and try to explain how and why his reputation is what it is. Put differently, I have tried to avoid jurisprudential analyses that I think weigh down other judicial biographies.

Question: The last major biography of a federal court of appeals judge was David Dorsen’s Henry Friendly, Greatest Judge of His Era (2012), also a practicing lawyer-authored biography. What was your sense of that biography and how does it differ in form and style from the one you are doing of Judge Posner?

Domnarski: For all of its strengths, the Dorsen book left me wanting because I wanted to hear more about Judge Friendly from people who knew him at various stages of his life. That’s the difficulty with writing about someone who is so far in our past such as Friendly, who died in 1986 – like him, his contemporaries have all passed.

There are, to be sure, inherent problems in writing about a subject based in part on information gathered in interviews in the same way that there are inherent problems in interviewing a subject to gather information. But from the point of view of being able to make the subject come alive for the reader, this kind of information is first tier, nearly equal I’d say to what the subject writes in private correspondence. (in that respect, I had access to Posner’s many letters by way of his Chicago archive.)



Posner on Case Workloads & Making Judges Work Harder

What’s the evidence in this case that the [administrative] judges can’t work harder and handle 500 cases?Richard Posner (2014)

I shall not inquire why Congress as it were “permits” judges not to work too hard, by increasing the number of judges and their staffs in order to meet increases in workload. . . .

Any effort by one judge to hear more than his proportional share of cases or snag more than his proportional share of writing assignments is not only rebuffed but resented. For one thing, it might result in Congress’s deciding that a smaller number of judges could handle the federal judicial workload.Richard Posner, “What do Judges Maximize?

This is the tenth installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, the eighth here, and the ninth one here.

Almost two decades ago, in a book titled The Federal Courts: Challenge and Reform (1985). Both his analysis of the problems facing federal courts and his calls for reform drew criticism from some members of the federal bench. See e.g. Judge Roger J. Miner’s 1997 review essay. Judge Posner was also a member of The Federal Courts Study Committee (1990).

Three years ago Judge Posner offered the following comment on the workload of the Supreme Court Justices:

“If you look hard enough [on the Court’s official website], you will find a paragraph implying misleadingly that the Court has a very heavy workload; in fact, in the last half-century its output has fallen, while its staff (consisting mainly of law clerks) has increased substantially, both in quantity and—because, since the late 1960s, a prior clerkship has become de rigueur for Supreme Court law clerks—in experience.”

Against that general backdrop, I thought it might be informative to consider a recent case that came before Judge Posner on the topic of case workloads. Earlier this month, on December 9th, a panel of the Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments in Association of Administrative Law Judges v. Colvin.

The Plaintiffs were members of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (all administrative law judges). They filed a complaint contesting a Benchmarks and Directive issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA) imposing an agency-wide requirement that SSA administrative law judges (ALJ) decide 500-700 cases per year. The ALJs alleged that SSA had imposed an illegal quota on them and thus violated their right to decisional independence under the Administrative Procedures Act. The District Court granted the Defendant’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

Below are some excerpts from an exchange during oral arguments in the Colvin case. The other two judges on the panel were Michael Kanne and Kenneth Ripple. Given the focus of this series, however, I quoted only Judge Posner’s questions and comments. The comments I have transcribed, though directed at administrative law judges, provide the reader with a general idea of the nature of some of Judge Posner’s concerns.   

One final comment: If Judge Posner expects a lot of work from his fellow judges, both administrative law and Article III jurists, it may have something to do with his own (pardon the expression) Calvinist-like work ethic.


Marilyn Zahm: . . . This case is about judicial integrity and the integrity of the entire administrative judicial system. It is a case about a quota that directs judges to issue favorable decisions or cut corners, denying claimants due process and fair adjudication of their cases. It is not a case about working conditions. . . . Administrative law judges have to have judicial independence . . . .

Judge Posner: I don’t see how this affects judicial independence.

Ms. Zahm: The quota directs that the judge issue favorable decisions or cut corners.

Judge Posner: No, no, that’s not a proper definition. The quota says you’re supposed to do what? — 500 to 700 cases a year?

Ms. Zahm: The quota says we have a minimum of 500 cases.

Judge Posner: Five hundred cases a year. Now how does having to do 500 instead of 400, or whatever people do, how does that interfere with your adjudicative independence?

Ms. Zahm: Because paying cases is faster, and it’s easier because those cases are not appealed. The government is not represented in our courtroom, and very little scrutiny is given to cases that are paid. There are no studies showing that a judge can properly adjudicate a minimum of 500 cases a year and still comply with the requirements of the APA, and all of the rules, regulations, and law of the Social Security Act. In fact, the agency asserts that it should take us two-and-a-half-hours to adjudicate a case. That includes: opening the file, reading all of the voluminous records – most of which are medical records – holding a full and fair hearing, developing the record, ensuring that all of the evidence . . .

[The Need to Work Harder]

Judge Posner: Well, you’re saying that to do a good job, they’ll have to work harder.

Ms. Zahm: I don’t think it’s a question of working harder.

Judge Posner: Why not? If they work harder, they can do what their doing now. Right?

Ms. Zahm: No, because it takes a certain amount of time to do the work. . . .

6a00d8341bf74053ef00e54f6ef40d8833-800wiJudge Posner: But judicial workloads, for example, vary across districts, and circuits and so on. Some courts have heavier workloads, so the judges have to work harder. Is that an interference with judicial independence?

Ms. Zahm: If by working harder we could accomplish the 500 case minimum, we would not be here. It’s not a question of working harder. The work takes a certain amount of time . . .

Judge Posner: Why do you think they [the SSA has] done this?

Ms. Zahm: It’s political expediency.

Judge Posner: How do you mean?

Ms. Zahm: That, they have a certain amount of cases that have to be moved through the system, and therefore the judges are just going to move them through the system.

Judge Posner: Well, that sounds like a pretty good reason. Right?

Ms. Zahm: Not if it perverts the administrative . . . .

Judge Posner: But it only perverts it if the judges refuse to work harder.

Ms. Zahm: Again, Judge Posner, I don’t mean to disagree, but it’s not a question of working harder. If I worked harder . . .

Judge Posner: How do you know? How do we know? What’s the evidence of that?

Ms. Zahm: Well, you see the cases that we handle coming through your courtroom.

Judge Posner: What’s the evidence in this case that the judges can’t work harder and handle 500 cases?

Ms. Zahm: We are prepared to show at trial that this is not a case of requiring judges to work harder but perverting . . . .

Judge Posner: Well, how many cases did they handle before this rule?

Ms. Zahm: I think that varied . . .

Judge Posner: No, answer my question.

Ms. Zahm: . . . The average judge would probably handle between 300 and 500 cases prior to this.

Judge Posner: That sounds like an average of 400. So, what’s the evidence that if you increased their caseload by 25%, they can’t handle that increase?

[Rubber-stamping cases?]

Ms. Zahm: Well, I could handle 1oo cases a day if all I did is rubber-stamped them. It’s not a question of handling the cases. It’s a question of performing your statutory obligations of giving the claimant due process, of reading the entire record, of developing the case. And if you don’t do that the outcome is affected. Either you will pay the case . . . or you give the claimant short shrift. That’s not a judicial system that has any integrity.

Judge Posner: No, my question is more specific: Suppose the average administrative law judge handles 400 cases a year. How difficult is it for him to handle 500?

Ms. Zahm: I can speak from my own experience, because when I was a fulltime judge I did close to 400 cases a year. I was pushing it to do that many.

Posner’s Productivity – 90 opinions annually

[T]he Supreme Court justices write very, very few majority opinions. Last year they saw 74 cases. Divide that by nine and that’s a little more than eight opinions a year. That’s ridiculous! I write around 90 opinions a year. [Source here]

Judge Posner: So why doesn’t the agency hire more administrative law judges?

Ms. Zahm: Because Congress in the past has given the agency less money than it needs to accomplish its mission. The agency is in the process of hiring more judges. The problem is that there are more cases than ever. . . .

[Question from Judge Ripple re whether there was a “working condition” subject to the CSRA and response by Ms. Zahm]

[The 10-hour day hypothetical] Read More


On Judicial Reputation: More Questions for Judge Posner

Successful people often are insecure (though they may hide their insecurity behind a facade of bluster); it is what drives them to success. — Richard Posner (1994)

We are experts in self-presentation, in acting a part to further our aims and interests. We have, all of us, a public relations strategy.  Richard Posner (May 5, 2011)

I have never yearned for greatness!  Richard Posner (November 26, 2014)

This is the eighth installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, and the seventh one here.

In Judge Richard Posner’s The Essential Holmes, he echoed a line from Oliver Wendell Holmes concerning John Marshall. This is that line: “A great man represents a great ganglion in the nerves of society, or to vary the figure, a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists in his being there.”

Holmes’s resort to the word “ganglion” (meaning a swelling, or mass of nerve cell bodies, or a nerve cell cluster) is rather opaque — his use of the term is not readily apparent. But to tease the Holmesian metaphor out a bit, part of a judge’s greatness depends on a willingness and ability to successfully affect or change the nerve center of a society. In other words, a true capacity to alter something central. The alternative Holmesian account of greatness hinges on a combination of strategy and timing (or one might say Fortuna). That is, judicial reputation depends on a special ability to seize the perfect moment and act boldly – the case of John Marshall, circa, 1803, comes immediately to mind.

Surprisingly, to talk with Richard Posner one might assume from what he says in his all-too-causal manner that he has little or no interest in greatness or judicial reputation as it pertains to him. Strange from a man who has written on book on judicial reputation (not to be confused, he tells us, with judicial greatness) and who in so many ways seems to have a will for greatness. But don’t believe it, he admonishes us emphatically: “I have never yearned for greatness!”  

According to Judge Posner, Cardozo was a highly reputed jurist and Holmes was a great jurist. But what of Posner? Silence. Apparently, he doesn’t care to discuss it. Why? Perhaps because as a maverick jurist (and he is surely that), he cannot appear to seek public approval. And yet, if one were to invoke his own criteria for measuring judicial reputation, Judge Posner would rank quite high. (See e.g., Ronald Collins & David O’Brien, “Gauging Reputations, National Law Journal, pp. 13-14, April 1, 1991, and Lawrence Cunningham, “Cardozo and Posner: A Study in Contracts,” William & Mary Law Review (1985).) Fine, he might say, brushing it off with a disinterested look. And what of his legal legacy? Of that he claims to care not: “I have absolutely no interest in my posthumous reputation,” he assures us.

So there you have him: a great jurist (or should I say a highly reputed jurist?) who really does not care a bit about being seen as great. Speaking of that subject, see Richard Posner, “The Hand Biography and the Question of Judicial Greatness,” 104 Yale Law Journal 511, (1994).

All that said, in what follows, Judge Posner says a few things about these matters in connection with various American jurists.

Note: Some of the links used below will open in Firefox and Chrome but not in Safari.


Max Lerner

Max Lerner

Question: In his book Nine Scorpions in a Bottle (1994), the late Max Lerner asserted: “There is no recipe for judicial greatness. Yet, if hard-pressed, I should settle for someone with a flexible mind, a compassion for the walking wounded, a refusal to be cowed by power, a capacity to live with the contradictions of life and to separate the permanent from the transient.” And then he added: “That is what I should call a passionately judicial temperament, and only a few have had it.” Before we turn to your own particular views on the subject, what is your opinion of Mr. Lerner’s recipe (albeit tentative) for judicial greatness?

Posner: [As for Lerner’s formula for greatness, I find it] a little puffed up. Forget greatness. A very good judge is a judge who is well educated and intelligent, hard working, willing to write his own opinions, curious about the real-world activities, transactions, and institutions out of which the cases he hears arise, collegial, and aware (so far as anyone can be aware) of his limitations and of the influences that play on him as a result of his upbringing, ideology, career, and temperament.

Posner on the Criteria for Judicial Greatness

For one thing the criteria of judicial greatness are contested. Some might insist that a judge’s greatness consists in the “rightness” of his decisions as judged by the test of time. I think that this is too demanding a standard. Most judicial decisions, even of the agreed-to-be-the-greatest judges, like most scientific discoveries, even of the universally acknowledged greatest scientists, usually are superseded and in that sense eventually proved “wrong.” I believe that the test of greatness for the substance of judicial decisions, therefore, should be, as in the case of science, the contribution that the decisions make to the development of legal rules and principles rather than whether the decision is a “classic” having the permanence and perfection of a work of art. . . Creativity is .  . . one possible criterion ofjudicial greatness. Another . . . . is the gift of verbal facility that enables a familiar proposition to be expressed memorably, arrestingly, thus enforcing attention, facilitating comprehension, and, often, stimulating new thought (in which case the expressive dimension of judicial greatness merges with the creative). [Source here]

Question: Almost a quarter-century ago you called on scholars to pay considerably more attention to “critical judicial study” by way of quantitative analysis of judicial reputation, influence, and achievement. Do you think that call has been heeded?

Posner: A little, not a great deal.

UnknownQuestion: The quantitative analysis you employed in Cardozo: A Study in Reputation (1990) turned largely, and understandably so, on a judge’s reputation within the legal community. But greatness surely extends beyond the confines of that domain and into the larger public realm. How is judicial reputation to be gauged at that macro level? And how does that pursuit of greatness differ, if at all, from one confined to the legal community?

Posner: No one outside the legal profession (with the intermittent exception of politicians) is interested in judges other than Supreme Court Justices. I don’t think it’s healthy for judges to worry about what lay people think of them.

Question: Most judges, you contend, “would rather be regarded as sound than as original, as appliers of the law rather than inventors of it. Judges find it politic to pretend that they are the slaves of the law, never its masters and the competitors of legislators.” If a judge takes that creed of moderation seriously, is such a jurist likely to be heralded as great?

Posner: As I said earlier, forget greatness. The judges who adopt the pretense will be respected by many other judges and applauded by legislators, who don’t like the idea of judges making law, though judges to make a great deal of law.

Question: You have suggested that “rhetorical power may be a more important attribute of judicial excellence than analytical power.” Why? And should that be so?

Posner: The analytical issues presented by cases are rarely complex or difficult, though lawyers and judges and law professors try to make them seem so. The insights of the excellent judges tend to be the result of intuition, experience, and temperament rather than of analysis, and the rhetorical power in which they are expressed are important to the persuasiveness and reception of the insights.

None of the [current Justices] has any empirical, technical background. They’re just humanities majors. Richard Posner, Oct. 23, 2014, University of Chicago Law School remarks.

Question: In terms of his position in American law, what single trait do you think best helps to explain Chief Justice John Marshall’s revered and lasting reputation?

Posner: He had a great deal of common sense and government experience, and he wrote forcefully and lucidly.

Justice Joseph Story

Justice Joseph Story

Question: By the time he died in 1845, Justice Joseph Story published twenty-one books after his three-volume Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, which was a major legal work for its time and long afterwards. And he authored some important opinions such as Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816), Swift v. Tyson (1842), and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). And yet, today the man and his work seem to be largely forgotten. Why do you suppose that is?

Posner: I don’t know. I’ve never read anything by him. Prompted by your question, I read his opinion in Swift v. Tyson. I thought it was well written, though not as well written as Marshall’s opinions.

[RC: Consider Bernard Schwartz, “Supreme Court Superstars: The Ten Greatest Justices” (1995) (ranking Story as second greatest Justice.]

Question: I was struck by how much the reputational stock of some of the judges and scholars you listed in Tables 1-4 of your Cardozo book has dropped since you published that work in 1990. Is judicial reputation thus akin, at least in some general way, to the rise-and-fall celebrity stardom of, say, the Michael Jackson variety? If so, how does a judge best secure a reputation that lasts over generational time?

Posner: The decline is experienced by almost all judges, simply because law changes as society changes, and the old cases cease to have any relevance. Well-written opinions have the best survival chances, because the quality of the writing is independent of the currency or importance of the issues.

Question: The filaments of Holmes’ thought, you maintain, included “Nietzschean vitalism.” Tell us more about that and why you think it important. Read More


On Privacy, Free Speech, & Related Matters – Richard Posner vs David Cole & Others

I’m exaggerating a little, but I think privacy is primarily wanted by people because they want to conceal information to fool others. Richard Posner

Privacy is overratedRichard Posner (2013)

 Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct. Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.Richard Posner (2014)

This is the seventh installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth one here.

Privacy has been on Richard Posner’s mind for more than three-and-a-half decades. His views, as evidenced by the epigraph quotes above, have sparked debate in a variety of quarters, both academic and policy. In some ways those views seem oddly consistent with his persona – on the one hand, he is a very public man as revealed by his many writings, while on the other hand, he is a very private man about whom we know little of his life outside of the law save for a New Yorker piece on him thirteen years ago.

On the scholarly side of the privacy divide, his writings include:

  1. The Right of Privacy,” 12 Georgia Law Review 393 (1978)
  2. Privacy, Secrecy, and Reputation,” 28 Buffalo Law Review 1 (1979)
  3. The Uncertain Protection of Privacy by the Supreme Court,” 1979 Supreme Court Review 173
  4. The Economics of Privacy,” 71 The American Economic Review 405 (1981)
  5. Privacy,” Big Think (video clip, nd)
  6. Privacy is Overrated,” New York Daily News, April 28, 2014

For a sampling of Judge Posner’s opinion on privacy, go here (and search Privacy)

(Note: Some links will only open in Firefox or Chrome.)


Privacy – “What’s the big deal?”

Privacy interests should really have very little weight when you’re talking about national security. The world is in an extremely turbulent state – very dangerous. — Richard Posner (2014)

Recently, Georgetown Law Center held a conference entitled “Cybercrime 2020: The Future of Online Crime and Investigations” (full C-SPAN video here). In the course of that event, Judge Posner joined with others in government, private industry, and in the legal academy to discuss privacy, the Fourth Amendment, and free speech, among other things. A portion of the exchange between Judge Posner and Georgetown law professor David Cole was captured on video.

Judge Richard Posner

Judge Richard Posner

Scene: The Judge sitting in his office, speaking into a video conference camera — As he rubbed his fingers across the page and looked down, Posner began: “I was thinking, listening to Professor Cole, what exactly is the information that he’s worried about?” Posner paused, as if to setup his next point: “I have a cell phone – iPhone 6 – so if someone drained my cell phone, they would find a picture of my cat [laughter], some phone numbers, some e-mail addresses, some e-mail texts – so what’s the big deal?”

He then glanced up from the text he appeared to be reading and spoke with a grin: “Other people must have really exciting stuff. [laughter] Could they narrate their adulteries or something like that?” [laughter] He then waved his hands in the air before posing a question to the Georgetown Professor.

“What is it that you’re worrying about?” Posner asked as if truly puzzled.

At that point, Cole leaned into his microphone and looked up at the video screen bearing the Judge’s image next to case reports on his left and the American flag on his right.

Cole: “That’s a great question, Judge Posner.”

Professor Cole continued, adding his own humor to the mix: “And I, like you, have only pictures of cats on my phone. [laughter] And I’m not worried about anything from myself, but I’m worried for others.”

On a more substantive note, Cole added: “Your question, which goes back to your original statement, . . . value[s] . . . privacy unless you have something to hide. That is a very, very shortsighted way of thinking about the value [of privacy]. I agree with Michael Dreeben: Privacy is critical to a democracy; it is critical to political freedom; [and] it is critical to intimacy.”

The sex video hypothetical

And then with a sparkle in his spectacled eye, Cole stated: “Your question brings to mind a cartoon that was in the New Yorker, just in the last couple of issues, where a couple is sitting in bed and they have video surveillance cameras over each one of them trained down on the bed [Cole holds his hands above his head to illustrate the peering cameras]. And the wife says to the husband: ‘What are you worried about if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.’”

Using the cartoon as his conceptual springboard, Cole moved on to his main point: “It seems to me that all of us, whether we are engaged in entirely cat-loving behavior, or whether we are going to psychiatrists, or abortion providers, or rape crises centers, or Alcoholics Anonymous, or have an affair – all of us have something to hide. Even if you don’t have anything to hide, if you live a life that could be entirely transparent to the rest of the world, I still think the value of that life would be significantly diminished if it had to be transparent.”

Without missing a beat, Cole circled back to his video theme: “Again you could say, ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, and you’re not engaged in criminal activity, let’s put video cameras in every person’s bedroom. And let’s just record the video, 24/7, in their bedroom. And we won’t look at it until we have reason to look at it. You shouldn’t be concerned because . . .’”

At this point, Posner interrupted: “Look, that’s a silly argument.”

Cole: “But it’s based on a New Yorker cartoon.”

The Judge was a tad miffed; he waved his right hand up and down in a dismissive way: “The sex video, that’s silly!Waving his index finger to emphasize his point, he added: “What you should be saying, [what] you should be worried about [are] the types of revelation[s] of private conduct [that] discourage people from doing constructive things. You mentioned Alcoholics Anonymous . . .”

Cole: “I find sex to be a constructive thing.”

Obviously frustrated, Posner raised his palms up high in protest: “Let me finish, will you please?”

Cole: “Sure.”

Posner: “Look, that was a good example, right? Because you can have a person who has an alcohol problem, and so he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he doesn’t want this to be known. If he can’t protect that secret,” Posner continued while pointing, “then he’s not going to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s gonna be bad. That’s the sort of thing you should be concerned about rather than with sex videos. . . . [The Alcoholics Anonymous example] is a good example of the kind of privacy that should be protected.”

David Cole

Professor David Cole

Privacy & Politics 

Meanwhile, the audience listened and watched on with its attention now fixed on the Georgetown professor.

Cole: “Well, let me give you an example of sex privacy. I think we all have an interest in keeping our sex lives private. That’s why we close doors into our bedroom, etc. I think that’s a legitimate interest, and it’s a legitimate concern. And it’s not because you have something wrong you want to hide, but because intimacy requires privacy, number one. And number two: think about the government’s use of sex information with respect to Dr. Martin Luther King. They investigated him, intruded on his privacy by bugging his hotel rooms to learn [about his] affair, and then sought to use that – and the threat of disclosing that affair – to change his behavior. Why? Because he was an active, political, dissident fighting for justice.”

“We have a history of that,” he added. “Our country has a history of that; most countries have a history of that; and that’s another reason the government will use information – that doesn’t necessarily concern [it] – to target people who [it is] concerned about . . . – not just because of their alcohol problem [or] not just because of their sexual proclivities – but because they have political views and political ideas that the government doesn’t approve of.”

At this point the moderator invited the Judge to respond.

Posner: “What happened to cell phones? Do you have sex photos on your cell phones?”

Cole: “I imagine if Dr. Martin Luther King was having an affair in 2014, as opposed to the 1960s, his cell phone, his smart phone, would have quite a bit of evidence that would lead the government to that affair. He’d have call logs; he might have texts; he might have e-mails – all of that would be on the phone.”

The discussion then moved onto the other panelists.

Afterwards, and writing on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Professor Orin Kerr, who was one of the participants in the conference, summed up his views of the exchange this way:

“I score this Cole 1, Posner 0.”

The First Amendment — Enter Glenn Greenwald Read More


On legal education & legal scholarship — More questions for Judge Posner

We should not allow complacency about the American university system to blind us to the weaknesses in legal education.

I am not starry-eyed about the new interdisciplinary legal scholarship. [Even so,] where is it written that all legal scholarship shall be in the service of the legal profession? 

The decline in doctrinal scholarship is relative, not absolute, and perhaps not even relative; all that may be occurring is a shift in the production of doctrinal scholarship toward scholars at law schools of the second and third tier.

Richard Posner (1995)

This is the fifth installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth one here.  

Richard Posner’s scholarly career in law may have started in 1961-62 when he served on the Harvard Law Review, first as a staff member and then as the President. During that period he published on topics as diverse as a note on the application of international law to outer space (74 HLR 1154), a comment on federal review of state law rulings (74 HLR 1375), a comment patent and antitrust law (75 HLR 602), and a comment on the application of law to religiously owned property (75 HLR). After his clerkship with Justice William Brennan (1962-63 Term) and several jobs with the federal government, he began his professorial career at Stanford Law School in 1969 and thereafter ventured off to the University of Chicago Law School where he is currently a senior lecturer in law. Over the years he has taught antitrust, economic analysis of law, civil procedure, conflict of laws, law and science, evidence, and law and literature.

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 2.03.58 PMOne of his articles ranked 64th in the list of the most-cited law review articles of all time. In the field of antitrust law, one his articles (co-authored with William Landes) ranked second in the listings of the most-cited law review articles. (Posner had his own system of rankings.  See here) Even more impressive, as reported by Fred R. Shapiro and Michelle Pears, “[a]s of 2000, Judge Posner was the most often-cited legal scholar of all time with 7,981 citations, nearly 50 percent more than anyone else.”

In the last half-century or so, Posner has published a wide variety of scholarly works in the form of books (40-plus) and articles (300-plus) – perhaps more than any academic writing in the field of American law. In that array of legal literature he has written much on the topic of legal education and legal scholarship. See, for example, the following nine articles by him:

  1. The Present Situation in Legal Scholarship,” 90 Yale Law Journal 1113 (1981)
  2. The Decline of Law as an Autonomous Discipline,” 100 Harvard Law Review 761 (1987)
  3. The Deprofessionalization of Legal Teaching and Scholarship,” 91 Michigan Law Review 1921 (1993)
  4. The Future of the Student-Edited Law Review,” 47 Stanford Law Review 1131 (1994)
  5. William M. Landes & Richard A. Posner, “Heavily Cited Articles in Law,” 71 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 825 (1996)
  6. Past-Dependency, Pragmatism, and Critique of History in Adjudication and Legal Scholarship,” 67 University of Chicago Law Review 573 (2000)
  7. Legal Scholarship Today,” 115 Harvard Law Review 1314 (2002)
  8. Against Law Reviews,” Legal Affairs, Nov-Dec. 2004
  9. The State of Legal Scholarship Today: A Comment on Schlag,” 97 Georgetown Law Journal 845 (2009)

Below are some questions on the topics of legal education and legal scholarship I posed to the Judge followed by his replies. (Note: Some links will open in Firefox or Chrome but not in Safari.)


Question: What do you think is the single greatest shortcoming of legal education in America today?

Posner: There are several shortcomings; I don’t know how to rank them.

  1. Legal education is too expensive, in part because law school faculties are too large.
  2. Not enough law professors, especially at the elite law schools, have substantial practical experience as lawyers, and
  3. Law school teaching focuses excessively on legal doctrine, to the exclusion of adequate attention to facts, business practices, science and technology, psychology, judicial mentality and behavior, legal practice, and application of legal principles.

Question: Insofar as the teaching of legal ethics is concerned, is teaching the rules of professional responsibility and the cases interpreting them enough in your opinion? Or should some significant attention be devoted to familiarizing law students with some of the great works of the Western Philosophical tradition? – say, to Plato’s Gorgias or Aristotle’s Rhetoric (see here at p. 1924)

Posner:  I don’t consider instruction in legal ethics an important part of legal education. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is pertinent to the rhetorical dimension of legal practice, rather than to legal ethics. Gorgias can be read as critical of lawyers’ tricks, though there were no lawyers as such in fourth century b.c. Athens.

Question:  It has been argued that legal education is akin to learning a form of science. In what ways, if any, does it make sense to speak of the study of law as the study of legal science?

Posner: Law has nothing to do with science. It involves making and applying rules of conduct; the rules are based on legislative and other political decisions, common sense, societal values, judges’ personal preferences, intuition, rhetoric—not logical or scientific rigor.

Question: All things considered, what do you think of calls for reducing law school education to two years?

Posner:  I think that would be fine. A third year might be offered, but as something to be taken after the two-year graduate has spent some time in practice and wants some specialized further training.

Question: In your opinion, how, if at all, has the role of the law school dean changed in the past half-century? And if it has changed, what do you make of it?

Posner: Much more emphasis on fund raising.

Question: In Tagatz v. Marquette University (1988) you noted that tenure “tends to take some of the edge off academic ambition.” What are your views on the current tenure system as it operates in law schools and how, if at all, might you change it?

Posner: Tenure is a form of nonmonetary compensation, hence attractive to universities. The downside is it undermines the work ethic. I don’t know whether the benefits exceed the costs.

Question: (1) What are your views concerning affirmative action and tenure standards when it comes to promoting racial minorities? And do democratic principles justify bending evaluative standards?

(2) Is the problem of race the problem of the evaluative standards that law schools employ? If so, what is the alternative?

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 11.45.07 PMPosner:  (1) The only racial minority in the United States that needs affirmative action is the African-American minority. I doubt, though, that African-Americans who have the competence to be considered as law professors need a boost.

(2) I think law schools should give more weight to practical experience in hiring law professors, but I don’t think this relates particularly to African-Americans.

Question: Many years ago you wrote: “not all blacks are culturally black.” Would you a say a bit more about what you meant by that and do you still hold to that view? In answering that question, do you think that one can ever fully escape the consequences of his or her color even if one is, as you put it, an “assimilated black”?

Posner: I’m sure that almost all African-Americans are conscious of and think occasionally about being black—that’s inevitable given history, and it’s the same reason that secular Jews, who may have zero interest in Judaism or Jewish culture, remain conscious of being Jewish. But successful upper-middle-class African-Americans are so much like their white counterparts as not to be preoccupied with the racial difference.

Question: Is Socratic “cold call” method dying in law schools? Or is it already largely dead? If so, is this a good thing? Your views? Read More


FAN 19 (First Amendment News) Law Prof. Contests Ban on Note-Taking in Courtroom

This first part of this column is about bans on note-taking in courtrooms, federal and state. To illustrate this point, I want to say a few things about a law professor and the recent hell he went through in his attempt to takes notes in a public courtroom in Cook County, Illinois. Before I get to his story, which is an incredible one, permit me to set the stage with a few bits of history.
* * * * 
There was a time, in my adult lifetime, when spectators in the Supreme Court were barred from taking notes. Yes, note-taking was not permitted unless one was a member of the press corps. One had to sit and listen in silence. In an August 18, 1997 Washington Post op-ed, Professor David M. O’Brien and I put it this way:

“It is an unwritten rule but a rule nonetheless. No ordinary citizen can take notes in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court, unless granted special prior approval by the officer of the Public Information Office. . . . (For an unknown period before 1988, not even members of the Court’s bar could lift a pen.) . . . . No one really really knows when the rule, which is of contemporary vintage, began. Insofar as there is any reason for the rule, it is to protect the ‘decorum factor.’ Violate the rule and the marshals whisk you away.”

“No one, including the ever-attentive press corps, fusses over the rule, one of the few of its kind enforced in any federal or state court in this land. . . . Back in 1988, however, Justice Harry Blackmun complained about the rule in a memo to his colleagues: ‘I wonder if we go too far in our request for decorum.’ Noting came of the complaint.”

We concluded our op-ed this way: “Imagine courtroom audiences . . . taking notes about what they hear and see, as if the Court were a civic classroom. Imagine citizens exercising their First Amendment rights to further their knowledge of [the Supreme Court] and their Constitution. What is amazing is that such things can only be imagined — for now.”

Ban Silently Lifted 

And then the world changed in November 2002. As Tony Mauro reported in a May 5, 2003 article for Legal Times: The rule’s “demise came without fanfare and without public notice, but Court public information officer Kathy Arberg confirmed last week that sometime last November the policy against note-taking was ‘no longer enforced’ by Court Police officers.” And then this: “One of the weblogs that handicaps Court cases, [SCOTUSblog], first noted the change on April 25th after blogger Ted Metzler attended the arguments in Nike v. Kasky. As he and other spectators went through security, Metzler recalls, ‘The officer told us we could bring in a notebook and pen and we all looked at each other.’ Metzler is currently a law clerk at D.C.’s Goldstein & Howe . . . .”

Professor Samuel V. Jones

Professor Samuel V. Jones

12 Years Later — Enter Professor Jones (the would-be notetaker)

He doesn’t fit the typical profile of a rabble-rouser. He is a former Marine Sargent, a former U.S. judge advocate, and before that senior counsel in the Commercial Law group at AT&T Corp and later as corporate counsel for Labor and Employment for Blockbuster, Inc. He is also a former Special Advisor to the Chair of the Illinois Judicial Council. And now he is a professor at the John Marshall Law School.

He is Samuel V. Jones. This former Marine is not a man to sit on his rights, especially his First Amendment rights. And so when the deputies in a circuit court ordered his to forsake those rights, he refused.

It all happened on May 8th during the course of bail hearings in a Cook County court presided over by Circuit Judge Laura Sullivan. Apparently, the atmosphere was tense as deputies patrolled the courtroom. At one point, according to Professor Jones, a “deputy approached and impolitely inquired, ‘Are you an attorney’? I identified myself as a professor of law doing research. She responded, ‘There is no note-taking in here.’ I wondered if the deputy knew that ‘the right of the press to access court proceedings is derivative of the public’s right,’ and journalists held no greater right than I did. I informed her that the office of the chief judge had advised me that note-taking is permitted. I asked if I had violated any laws or was disruptive. ‘No,’ she replied, and walked away.”

But that was hardly the end of the matter. Shortly thereafter, two different deputies ordered the professor out of the courtroom and confiscated his notes. “One deputy approached Judge Sullivan,” recalls Professor Jones, “and the proceedings immediately stopped. I was ordered to sit on a bench, told not to move or write, and was surrounded by several deputies.”

Judge Laura Sullivan

Judge Laura Sullivan

Here is how it ended: “After roughly 30 minutes, they released me with my notes. As I left, a group of African-Americans approached, wanting to shake hands. A lady enlightened me, ‘We saw what they did to you and figured you must be important.’ ‘Why,’ I asked. She explained, ‘Because they let you go.'”

Turns out that this is a old story in Cook County courts. According to recent a Chicago Tribune editorial, “in 2004, a different Cook County judge threw a different law professor out of her courtroom for taking notes. [Now retired] Judge Gloria Coco  forbade . . . writing in her courtroom . . . . That time, it ended up in federal court. A judge said the First Amendment protects public access to the courts so that citizens can observe and critique their government, and note-taking helps ensure an informed discussion.” (Here is the case: Goldschmidt v. Coco (2006).)

Thanks to Professor Jones, the problem may now have been solved for good insofar as Chief Judge Timothy Evans has since signed an “administrative order spelling out that note-taking is permitted in court.”

→ For an earlier discussion of the same problem, see Eugene Volokh, “Ban on Note-Taking by Spectators in Court,” Volokh Conspiracy, May 24, 2013

→ The American Judicature Society has conducted a federal court and 50-state court survey of “Note-Taking Laws,” this in connection with juror note-taking.

Third Circuit to Hear Challenge to Delaware’s Voter Guide Rules Read More


Science, Technology, Judges, and Juries

A study recently published in Science—one of the top scientific journals—terrifyingly explains that “[g]laciers along the Amundsen Coast of Antarctica are thinning” and suggests that the “full-scale collapse” of the Thwaites glacier “may be inevitable.” I don’t want to delve into a debate about whether our Earth is undergoing climate change, or whether any such climate changed is being caused by human activities. However, I do want to talk about the relevance of science to law, and the fact that science, as well as its partner technology, are moving at an incredibly rapid pace.

Questions about the relevance and meaning of science and technology to law can be found in matters ranging from the use of neuroscience to assess criminal culpability or physical injuries, to the use of epidemiological studies to establish causation in toxic tort cases, to the novel liability risks associated with the use of unmanned vehicles. One of the difficulties of employing scientific and technological knowledge in legal matters is that many judges and lawyers are not trained in the nuances of scientific reasoning or the details of understanding modern technology.

I occasionally teach Law & Science courses to judges, and several judges have expressed to me their difficulties in wrestling with science in their cases. This problem of judges trying to understand science is exacerbated when judges are tasked with determining the reliability of scientific evidence under the Daubert standard, which a majority of jurisdictions now use. Some judges try to better understand the science at issue, but they might do this by independently researching the issue. (Perhaps the judicial independent research that has received the most attention is Judge Posner’s “experiment with a novel approach” that he conducted pursuant to deciding Mitchell v. JCG Industries, Inc., where he had the court’s staff don and doff specialized clothing and equipment to determine how long the process took.) This practice may be suspect under the applicable code of judicial conduct, but some judges engage in it nonetheless.

A commonly cited example of judges struggling with technology can be seen in the somewhat embarrassing exchange among the Supreme Court Justices in Ontario v. Quon. In that case a police officer had sued the city, claiming that the police department’s review of his text messages violated the Fourth Amendment. In oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts inquired: “Maybe—maybe everybody else knows this, but what is the difference between a pager and e-mail?” And Justice Kennedy asked what would happen if someone were to text an individual while he was texting with someone else: Does the individual have “a voice mail saying that your call is very important to us; we’ll get back to you?” At least the judges were doing their best to understand the technology at issue, though, before handing down an important opinion on the matter.

On some science- and technology-related subjects that judges decide, there may be other, possibly more qualified decisionmakers available. On some such questions—especially when the science and technology is intermingled with moral determinations—juries are possible decisionmakers. Now juries have a bad reputation with many lawyers. Yes, I’ve seen jurors fall asleep during trial, and I’m all too familiar with some jurors’ focus on details like what kind of shoes a female lawyer wears to court. But juries can offer something that judges cannot. They are ordinarily more representative of their communities than a single judge could be. They serve as a bulwark between the government and the people. They serve to legitimate the law. Through their process of deliberate democratic decisionmaking they can make excellent determinations. Most relevant to decisions involving science and technology, though, juries—by virtue of including more than a single deliberator—can draw on a wide variety of knowledge and experiences. On a jury of twelve, there may be a mother, father, school teacher, engineer, recent college graduate, veteran, victim of assault, retired person, social worker, devout Catholic, plumber, and truck driver. And of course each juror would bring many more characteristics to the table. As a group, then, this deciding body can draw on a broad range of knowledge and experiences. Additionally, jurors often include decisionmakers who are younger than the judges presiding over the case and may be more on the pulse of cutting-edge science and technology. In a case in which a court faces a question such as whether continuous drone surveillance constitutes a Fourth Amendment search because it violates reasonable expectations of privacy, then, a diverse jury might prove to be a better decisionmaker than a judge.