Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Provocative Life of Judge Richard Posner

by John Fabian Wittoct

New York Times

October 7, 2016

Once in every great while, nature and nurture combine in a single person the qualities of erratic genius, herculean work ethic and irrepressible ambition. Think of Picasso in art, Ali in boxing or Roth in literature. Add a penchant for provocation untethered to the constraints of conventional human interaction and you get, in the law, Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago.

In the past half-century there has been no figure more dominant or more controversial in American law than Posner. He has written more than 50 books, over 500 articles and nearly 3,000 majority opinions for his court. Not even Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — to whom he is often compared — matches his productivity and range.

William Domnarski’s biography, the first such book on Posner, draws on extensive interviews and on access to Posner’s correspondence at the University of Chicago. “Richard Posner” portrays a man who aims self-­consciously to be (in his words) a “Promethean intellectual hero,” remaking the world of the law by sheer will. The questions Domnarski asks are, What makes this extraordinary character tick — and to what end?

Posner was born in New York City in 1939 to parents who were Communists, or at least fellow travelers. He held traditionally left-liberal views into adulthood, including the time of his clerkship on the Supreme Court with a liberal lion, Justice William Brennan. But he was restless and sometimes even bored. He considered leaving the law for graduate training in literature. In the late 1960s, however, he discovered economics. Legal thought has never been the same.


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