This is the second installment of a biographical profile of Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here. Beginning next week, a five-part Q & A series along with an interview with the author of a forthcoming Posner biography will be posted.
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The Friendly Connection
“Friendly and Posner have been cited by name by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Districts Courts more often by far than any other circuit court judges.” — William Domnarski (2011)
While much is known about Judge Posner’s high regard for Justice Holmes, much less attention has been devoted to his great respect for Judge Henry Friendly (1903-1983). For Posner, Friendly’s “photographic memory combined with his analytical power, energy, speed, and work ethic” produced “the most powerful legal reasoner in American legal history.” Or as Posner put it in a 1986 tribute: Judge Friendly’s “opinions have exhibited greater staying power than that of any of his contemporaries on the federal courts of appeal.” (99 Harv. L. Rev. 1724)
Between 1982 and 1986, the two jurists shared some 15,000 words in correspondence to one another (their letters have been preserved in the Harvard Law Library). Early on, in a May 12, 1982 letter to Posner, the 78-year-old Friendly praised the 43-year-old jurist: “I could not have dreamed of finding so perceptive a reader as you.” As Mr. Domnarski has aptly noted, “[s]oon Posner was comfortable enough to reveal some uncertainty in his work and ask for criticism that might help him. ‘On a more serious, even dismal, note,’ he writes, ‘I am enclosing a recent opinion I did on primary jurisdiction. I hope I got it right, but I felt a little unsure of the boundary between exhaustion and primary jurisdiction; and I would as always appreciate any comments, however critical, if you have time to read it. Pay no attention to it if I’m trespassing too much on your time.’”
A few years later, Judge Friendly was even more impressed with both the volume and quality of Posner’s judicial opinions.
Judge Friendly on Posner’s Judicial Opinions
“Every one is a masterpiece of analysis, scholarship, and style,” he declared in a September 19, 1984 letter. “About a year ago I said you were already the best judge in the country; having uttered that superlative, I am baffled on how to better it. If I could think of a way, I would use it.”
They wrote back and forth on topics ranging from railroad law to diversity jurisdiction and beyond. “Friendly and Posner were apparently so drawn to each other’s work,” says Domnarski, “that they wanted to see the other in action by having Posner come to Friendly’s Second Circuit and sit by designation. Posner had at first wanted Friendly to come to the Seventh Circuit to sit to take advantage of the rule allowing senior circuit judges such as Friendly to sit by designation in other circuits upon request and approval by the visited circuit’s chief judge.” Unfortunately, it never happened, though Posner did manage an occasional visit with Friendly whenever he came to New York and had the time.
Around Christmas of 1984, Judge Friendly inquired about Posner’s possible “elevation” to the Supreme Court. Even back then, Posner thought it doubtful. As he expressed it in a December 26, 1984 letter: “I have become an object of mysterious fascination to a segment of the press, which is doing a pretty good job of portraying me as a weirdo on the basis of some of my pre-judicial academic writing (misrepresented) and a handful of my opinions (misunderstood). Of course there is precious little I can do about any of this, but I am consoled by the thought that eventually the press will lose interest in me and move on to intrinsically livelier topics.”
Assuredly, Henry Friendly knew well what it meant to be a great judge but nonetheless passed up for a seat on the High Court. In a January 10, 1985 letter, he tried to console Posner: “These things are annoying but all this will pass. Unhappily this may not be without injury to your immediate prospects for elevation but I gather that you did not think these were very high in any event. You are wise to have acquired immunity for Supreme Court fever – a disease that has ruined many a judge.”
By 1986 it was over; Henry Friendly – old, depressed, and lonely – took his life. It was a great loss to the legal world. Worse still, his brand of judging was vanishing into the vapor of a past-tense world. Law, Posner wrote that same year, “is becoming increasingly politicized, bureaucratized, and specialized, and rising workloads are depriving more and more judges of time for reflection, discussion, and outside reading. These trends, which are unlikely to be reversed soon, bode ill for the continuation of our tradition of great judges. We may not see the likes of Henry Friendly again. The fullness of time may reveal that his passing marked the end of the classic period of American law.” (99 Harv. L. Rev. 1724,1725).
Friendly & Posner – their names sit well together. In some respects it is unsurprising that the two should have bonded as they did. They shared a common commitment to solving the riddles of the law in ways that lesser judges never do. Given their cerebral firepower and will to make the law more beholding to pragmatic reasoning, they stood almost alone in the camps of jurists. Because of that, they also shared a common identity as the most highly regarded jurists of their time, though neither ever elevated to the Supreme Court.
As it turned out, Henry Friendly’s reputation struggled to survive the ravages of time (see, for example, Adrian Vermeule’s review of the David Dorsen’s biography of Friendly). Even so, traces of the Friendly legacy find new and invigorated meaning in the person and writings of Richard Posner, buttressed of course by the latter’s unique judicial temperament, stylistic writings skills, and economic modes of analysis.
Beyond their respective biographies (existing and forthcoming), someday someone will write a book of a collection of profiles of the great federal judges who influenced the law but never sat on the High Court (a book similar to G. Edward White’s The American Judicial Tradition). When that book is done, profiles of Henry Friendly and Richard Posner are certain to be included, if only because they helped to shape the law in ways that most Supreme Court Justices never have. And yet, when he was nominated, relatively little attention was paid to Richard Posner; it was as if all that he had already written were typed in invisible ink. He was just another nominee . . . or so it seemed to the Senate when it confirmed him.
Richard Posner’s Confirmation Hearing
Posner’s confirmation hearing took place on a Friday afternoon, in a joint session with four other nominees, and with only Chairman Strom Thurmond and the conservative Howell Heflin of Alabama in attendance. Posner’s part of the hearing took but a few minutes, and he was quickly confirmed without debate. — Herman Schwartz, Packing the Courts (1988)
Judging Risks: Global Warming, Terrorism, & Abortion Protestors
He crosses the street with Darwinian caution. While he may not be entirely risk averse, he is surely risk attentive . . . even though a side of him greatly admires Holmesian heroism of the kind the captain so valiantly displayed in the Civil War. In this general regard and others, one can turn to Posner’s book Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2004) to get an up close sense of his views on cost-benefit analysis.
Global Warming: Mindful of such matters, a decade ago Posner expressed serious concerns about global warming. In Catastrophe, he stressed that “a wait-and-see policy would be perilous.” Though he would surely shun an environmentalist name tag (too herd mentality like), the libertarian jurist cautioned: “Eventually, and perhaps sooner than later, the atmospheric concentrations may reach a level that triggers abrupt, catastrophic global warming – the kind that ended the Younger Dyras. No one knows what that trigger point is or when it will be reached (if ever), but it will be reached sooner if we do nothing, starting now, to reduce emissions.”
In reflecting on the respective environmental and economic factors, Posner was sensitive to the well-being of future generations:
Posner the “Environmentalist”
“Although there is a strong case for taking measures against global warming now rather than waiting decades to do so, the question remains what measures to take – how much cost to incur – and the answer depends in part on the weight to be given to the welfare of future generations, since it is most likely that the costs of global warming will be borne primarily by them.”
In that regard, he made a strong case for being “more future-regarding.” To put it another way, the law may belong to the living, but its impact will be on those yet to be born, to whom a duty is surely owed.
Terrorism: Lest Judge Posner be mistaken for a pie-in-the-sky liberal, his ideas on terrorism and civil liberties might readily prompt those of that ilk to pause before applauding him. Here again, his views on risk management are articulated in Catastrophe, and also in his Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency (2006).
Posner has little patience for civil libertarians who hold that courts should actively police the constitutional boundaries between national security and civil liberties. “The strategy of civil libertarians,” he wrote in Catastrophe, “is to oppose the slightest curtailment of civil liberties. Their strategy may serve their fund-raising and other organizational goals, but it is questionable from an overall social welfare standpoint.” (See “Geoffrey Stone Debates Judge Richard Posner on Civil Liberties,” ACSblog, October 3, 2005, and “Legality and National Security,” Judge Posner’s remarks to ABA Standing Committee, May 9, 2006)
In United States v. Daoud (2014), a case involving a convicted American terrorist who attempted a “violent jihad” by way of bombing a building, Posner put his academic views to legal use. In Daoud the court denied the defendant access to secret warrant applications that allowed FBI surveillance of him. “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” wrote Posner, “is an attempt to strike a balance between the interest in full openness of legal proceedings and the interest in national security, which requires a degree of secrecy concerning the government’s efforts to protect the nation.” And then with characteristic bluntness he added: “Terrorism is not a chimera.” (The court later elaborated on its reasoning in a heavily redacted classified opinion.)
Were it known that a terrorist was driving toward Chicago with a bomb, would you think it an improper restriction of civil liberties to stop and search all cars approaching Chicago, even though there would be no probable cause to suspect any given driver of carrying a bomb? Or suppose a kidnapper has buried his victim alive and refuses to tell the police where. A policeman punches him in the face to make him talk. Would you think the policeman had acted improperly? (Source here.)
In a nutshell, Posner’s view is this: “Most judges know little about national security; the danger of catastrophic terrorism is real; and a constitutional decision forbidding a counterterrorist measure is almost impossible to change. It is better to leave these matters to be sorted out by the executive and legislative branches of government, where the relevant expertise resides.” Whether that is entirely so is, to be sure, open to debate as Jeffrey Rosen pointed out in his 2004 review of Catastrophe.
On a related front, there is also the question of the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden and their respective revelations of government excesses taken in the name of national security. Here again, Posner is not without an answer; he has his own take on whistleblowers and classified information. In November of 2011, while speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Judge Posner told the audience: “I don’t think disclosure of classified information has ever been significantly harmful to American foreign policy and national security objectives. And indeed in many cases has helped them. On the other hand, I don’t think the efforts of the government to stifle revelation of classified material is consequential.”
Abortion Protestors: Harms, however, do not have to be catastrophic for Judge Posner to believe they may trump some claim of constitutional liberty. Take, for example, his criticism of the unanimous judgment in the recent Supreme Court buffer zone abortion clinic case. “Lecturing strangers on a sidewalk is not a means by which information and opinion are disseminated in our society,” he wrote in Slate. “Strangers don’t meet on the sidewalk to discuss ‘the issues of the day.’ (Has Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the opinion, ever done such a thing?).”
Unwilling to leave it there, Posner cut to the realist quick: “The assertion that abortion protesters ‘wish to converse’ with women outside an abortion clinic is naive. They wish to prevent the women from entering the clinic, whether by showing them gruesome photos of aborted fetuses or calling down the wrath of God on them. This is harassment of people who are in a very uncomfortable position; the last thing a woman about to have an abortion needs is to be screamed at by the godly.”
Oh, how he abhors the sanctimonious! — be they conservative moralists or Ivy League ones.
Academic moralists pick from an à la carte menu the moral principles that coincide with the preferences of their social set. They have the intellectual agility to weave an inconsistent heap of policies into a superficially coherent unity and the psychological agility to honor their chosen principles only to the extent compatible with their personal happiness and professional advancement. — Richard Posner, October 1997 (Harvard Law School).
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