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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Posner’

Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

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The American Nietzsche? Fate and Power in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Pragmatism

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on February 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Seth Vannatta of Morgan State University recently coauthored a piece with me on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The piece appeared in the fall 2016 issue of UMKC Law Review.

Richard Posner is one of the few legal minds to have noticed the affinity between the philosophies of Holmes and Nietzsche. Dr. Vannatta and I hope to expand the circles of interest in this topic.

Our article demonstrates how Holmes’s pragmatism both comports with and departs from Nietzsche’s existentialism. Holmes’s pragmatism shares with Nietzsche’s existentialism a commitment to skepticism, perspectivalism, experiential knowledge, and aesthetics, as well as an abiding awareness of the problematic nature of truth and the fallibility of the human mind.

We suggest that Holmes was familiar with Nietzsche’s writings and that the two thinkers turned away from Christian ethics and glorified the life struggle in distinctly evolutionary terms. Both men celebrated the individual capacity to exercise the will for purposes of personal autonomy, greatness, and creative or aesthetic achievement. Nietzsche, however, did not share Holmes’s belief in the pragmatic potential of meliorism, which marks the distinction between their notions of fate.

The thinking of Nietzsche and Holmes converges in the person of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a manifest influence on both Holmes and Nietzsche and whose thinking on fate and power, inflected as it is by aesthetic pragmatism, shapes our understanding not only of Holmes and Nietzsche in isolation but also of Holmes and Nietzsche as paired, ambitious philosophers concerned about the role of fate and power in human activity.

The article is available for download here in the SSRN database for those who are interested in reading more about this curious relationship between two intellectuals whose ideas shaped society during the 20th century.

Richard Posner is a Monster

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Scholarship, Writing on January 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

William Domnarski is probably right when he writes that Richard Posner, like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “seemed destined for a literary life.” Holmes modeled himself on Emerson; he was the class poet at Harvard and earned his reputation as a thoughtful if controversial man of letters who could write with panache.

Posner, who majored in English at Yale, modeled himself on Holmes. “Holmes,” Posner declared in a missive, “is the greatest jurist, at least of modern times, because the sum of his ideas, metaphors, decisions, dissents, and other contributions exceeds the sum of contributions of any other jurist of modern times.” Posner’s writing similarly stands out for its flair and confidence.

Both men extended their influence beyond their legal opinions and have contributed to philosophy, becoming provocative historical figures in their own right. Posner has correctly invoked Holmes as a pragmatist, even if Holmes avoided the designation and referred to William James’s pragmatism as an “amusing humbug.” A member of the short-lived Cambridge Metaphysical Club that birthed pragmatism in the 1870s — and which also included James and C. S. Peirce — Holmes at least imbibed the pragmatism that was, so to speak, in the Boston air. Posner’s pragmatism, however, is only tangentially related to the thinking of Peirce and James, and so one hesitates to call it pragmatism at all.

In a move that must irritate University of Miami professor, Peirce supporter, and Richard Rorty critic Susan Haack, Posner distinguishes his variety of pragmatism — what he calls “everyday pragmatism” — from philosophical pragmatism. His thesis is most pronounced in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy(2005). The quotidian pragmatism that inheres in the law is, in his view, practical and forward-looking and based on “reasonableness.”

It’s not always clear how this mode of pragmatism intersects with, or diverges from, the so-called traditional or classical pragmatism, though it differs markedly — and refreshingly — from what Haack labeled “vulgar Rortyism,” that Frenchified variety of structuralism that dispensed with truth as a meaningful category of discourse.

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One suspects, given his outsized ego, that Posner delights in having placed his stamp on legal pragmatism, thereby forcing perplexed students in philosophy departments to come to terms with his ideas and square them with not only Peirce and James but also John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and W. V. Quine.

Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting. You might see him as an erudite, spirited dandy playing the part of flamboyant intellectual; or, more cruelly, as a bitter sophist bent on celebrating his own idiosyncratic views and maliciously dismissing his opponents with callous words and harsh indictments. Certainly his gratuitous rhetorical attacks on the late Antonin Scalia warrant this latter take.

And yet the man speaks with a high, soft voice; loves and spoils his cat; and spends most of his time reading and writing. It’s hard to condemn such things.

Posner is on record as having fancied himself as not just equal to, but more intelligent than, Learned Hand and Henry Friendly — two giants of American law — because he considered himself more informed about economics. This is surprising, chiefly because his self-assessment occurred before he became a judge.

As a judge, Domnarski tells us, “he could seek to persuade his new judicial colleagues to follow him, so as to further shape the law as he saw it — in his own image.” He continues to shape everything, it seems, in his own image, including, perhaps, Domnarski’s biography, which he read both in draft form and as a final manuscript.

One wonders how heavily he edited his own biography — how much latitude he enjoyed in fashioning his story. He sat for interviews and emailed with Domnarski, which wouldn’t be unusual or improper had he not been a primary source of his own legend, as he certainly appears to have been. As a young man, Posner exercised his authority as president of Harvard Law Review to include certain content over the objections of his peers. Might he have done this with his biographer?

¤

Posner, an only child, is used to promoting himself, and his acquaintances at different stages of his life often note his arrogance. As early as high school, he would say “the Poze knows,” and called himself “the mighty one,” writing in yearbooks that he “welcomes you as a High Priest of Posner Worship.” You can write this off as playful, but you can’t write off the fact that he cites himself in cases more than any other judge — though not by name, Domnarski points out, as if to acquit him of unseemly motivations.

An editor of a peer-reviewed journal once complained that Posner had cited himself too often in a paper, to which Posner rejoined that self-citation was necessary because he had produced most of the relevant literature on the subject. “The Poze knows,” the footnotes might have read. Another time an exasperated Posner wrote to editors at Cambridge University Press, “Don’t you know who I am?” — the same remark that landed Henry Louis Gates Jr. in hot water under different circumstances.

Although Domnarski connected with over 200 people to piece together this book, Posner’s personal opinion of himself seems to control the narrative and crowd out contrary valuations that critics may have offered. It’s not that Posner’s accomplishments and reputation are unearned. He’s worked hard to become perhaps the best-known and most prolific federal circuit judge in our nation’s history, and his talents and learning are unquestionable and impressive. The person who emerges in these pages is exceptional at what he does, but difficult to like. He graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School but was not popular. He remains good with ideas — just not with people. He’d rather disseminate brilliant theories than keep them to himself, even when they’re in bad taste or poor form. Whether that’s a virtue or vice depends upon one’s priority for manners and decorum.

¤

Posner’s most remarkable and admirable quality, it seems to me, is his ability — even willingness — to accept constructive criticism in stride. He doesn’t take evaluations of his work personally, and he invites opposition to fine-tune and improve his ideas. He instructs his clerks to criticize his draft opinions line by line so that he can perfect his rationale. “[W]e should want” and “insist upon,” he wrote to a colleague, “challenge and criticism; the rougher the better; for one of the great dangers of achieving eminence is that people are afraid to criticize you and then you end up inhabiting a fool’s paradise.”

Posner has referred to himself as a “monster,” a characterization he’s also reserved for Wagner, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Proust, Kafka, and Michelangelo. The term thus seems like an odd form of self-approbation rather than regret or self-loathing. It accords with his grand notion that he is “a Promethean intellectual hero,” not just some federal judge who happens to be well read.

Posner remains “a writer first and a lawyer second.” He’s correct that, as he told one correspondent, “the modern practice of law does not offer a great deal of scope for the poetic imagination.” Law schools have divided faculty into fields and sub-fields, and specialists in different areas of practice are increasingly unable to speak to one another in a common idiom or with shared vocabularies. Posner studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, who directed Posner’s research on William Butler Yeats, so he knows a thing or two about the poetic imagination and memorable expression.

But maybe the law is not about poetic imagination. Maybe it requires a prosaic and mechanical mind that can dispassionately and without fanfare adjudge the soundness of legal arguments presented by the parties to a case. If so, Posner may have been better suited for a different profession, one he would have loved and within which he could have more appropriately flaunted his creativity. Being an English professor, though, would’ve been out of the question; he dismisses much of what English literature departments regard as scholarship as “bullshit.” He uses the same word to describe work in the legal professoriate, of which he was once a seminal figure. By age 30, in fact, he had achieved the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He cultivated the image of an iconoclastic rabble-rouser willing to subject all human activity to cost-benefit analysis. He popularized the law-and-economics movement and eagerly imparted that economic efficiency supplied the right methodology for describing and delineating common-law judging, which involved practical resolutions to concrete problems. The doctrinaire Posner of this period drifted far from the Communist roots of his mother. More recently, though, he’s alleged that capitalism is a failure and moved decidedly to the left on key issues.

Perhaps because of his haughtiness, the law can seem boring and routine without him. There’s something to be said for the color and liveliness he brings to his office, and for his belief that “the law really is a very limited field for a person of literary bent.” Domnarski’s treatment may seem deferential, but it doesn’t cover up Posner’s naked, sometimes brutal honesty. Posner is willing to say what others aren’t, and able to say it more eloquently.

If, as Domnarski avers, Posner considers the average lawyer to be like Bartleby or Ivan Ilych — fancifully tragic figures — then he must disdain or pity those lawyers who come before him in the courtroom and submit their briefs for his relentless scrutiny. The 1987 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary states that lawyers who argued before Posner found him to be “arrogant, impatient, dogmatic,” and “opinionated,” and that he “dominates arguments” and “cross-examines lawyers as if they were 1-Ls in a Socratic exchange with a professor.” The man is important, no doubt, but never learned how to play nicely.

Ever the Darwinian, Posner has suggested that great books prove their merit over time in the competition of the marketplace; perhaps his reputation will too.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Research & Writing, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Supreme Court, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 7, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

My latest book, scheduled for release next week through Bucknell University Press, is about United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  The book continues my work at the intersection of law and the humanities and should interest scholars of literary theory, American literature, jurisprudence, and pragmatism.

I argue in the book that Holmes helps us see the law through an Emersonian lens by the way in which he wrote his judicial dissents. Holmes’s literary style mimics and enacts two characteristics of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought: “superfluity” and the “poetics of transition,” concepts ascribed to Emerson and developed by literary critic Richard Poirier. Using this aesthetic style borrowed from Emerson and carried out by later pragmatists, Holmes not only made it more likely that his dissents would remain alive for future judges or justices (because how they were written was itself memorable, whatever the value of their content), but also shaped our understanding of dissents and, in this, our understanding of law. By opening constitutional precedent to potential change, Holmes’s dissents made room for future thought, moving our understanding of legal concepts in a more pragmatic direction and away from formalistic understandings of law. Included in this new understanding is the idea that the “canon” of judicial cases involves oppositional positions that must be sustained if the law is to serve pragmatic purposes. This process of precedent-making in a common-law system resembles the construction of the literary canon as it is conceived by Harold Bloom and Richard Posner.

The book is available for purchase here:

Click here to purchase

Judges and Dons

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy on April 27, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman.

For a still-active judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit who “moonlights” as a law professor, Richard Posner is oddly and stunningly prolific. He not only contributes to scholarly discourse but also writes his own legal opinions. That places him in a small minority among federal judges. Posner is justifiably proud of his prolificacy and diligence, and he’s neither apprehensive nor ashamed about castigating his peers—another quality that sets him apart.

Over the years, Posner has tried to, in his words, “pull back the curtain” on his colleagues, our Oz-like federal judges, exposing their failures and inadequacies—what he calls, channeling Star Wars, the “dark side”—lurking behind the glow and aura and imprimatur of state power. Posner suggests that federal judges are not adept at preventing “hunch” or “ideology” from influencing their decisions. Because of their inadequate knowledge and limited training, he adds, federal judges too often resort to feeling and intuition—their “unconscious priors”—to resolve difficult facts and issues. He believes the legal academy should curb this judicial inadequacy, insofar as scholars could, in their teaching and writing, guide judges with clarifying direction. Yet he sees a troubling gulf between law schools and the bench, one that, he insists, “has been growing.”

Hence his latest book—Divergent Paths—which seeks to “explain and document” this gulf, “identify the areas in which federal judicial performance is deficient, and explain what the law schools can do to remedy, or more realistically to ameliorate, these deficiencies.” Posner is as hard on the professoriate as he is on the federal judiciary, indicting the former for its dislocation from the bench and the latter for its “stale” culture. To his credit, Posner criticizes only the federal judiciary and the elite law schools with which he is familiar. He does not purport to speak for, about, or against the state institutions and non-elite schools to which he has had little exposure, which lends his critique credibility.

Little else in the book, however, is modest. Posner is his typical boisterous self, and his characteristic crankiness is on grand display. Whether it bothers or delights readers depends, I suspect, on the extent to which they agree with him. If you’re in accord with Posner on this topic—the institutional and cultural barriers separating federal judges from legal scholars—you’ll find his frank attitude and no-holds-barred criticism to be entertaining. In equal measure, someone else might find them off-putting. The same goes for the book: whether you enjoy it will depend on your affinity for Posner.

Like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, his hero, Posner sees Darwinism—natural selection in particular—at work in all aspects of human experience. For example, the legal academy is “Darwinian” because “each species of professor must find an academic niche in which he can avoid destructive competition from other professors.” As a result, professors gather together in protective communities—an “academic ecology,” in Posner’s words—based on shared disciplinary interests. “Their need to communicate with persons outside their niche,” Posner opines, “like the need of a squirrel to learn to eat dandelions as well as nuts, is minimized.” This metaphor supposedly illustrates that the academy has become divorced from the judiciary. Although amusing as figurative language, it’s perhaps not borne out by facts or evidence, nor by the data Posner presents in tables in his introduction. At best, then, Posner’s complaint is anecdotal, not empirical, and that’s disappointing coming from this learned judge who earned his reputation as an empiricist.

“Increasingly law school faculties cultivate knowledge of fields outside of law but pertinent to it,” Posner says, “including economics, psychology, statistics, computer science, history, philosophy, biology, and literature.” The gradual incorporation of disparate disciplines in law schools has, Posner believes, developed in tandem with the growing academic neglect of judicial activity. Put simply, law schools no longer primarily study the behavior and methodology of judges as they once did. Moreover, as law professors have proliferated and law schools have increased in size and number, legal academicians have found ample audiences among faculty and scholars and thus have not suffered from their dislocation from judicial institutions or from the flesh-and-blood judges who decide concrete cases.

Posner decries, with Trump-like enthusiasm, the “refugees” from other, less lucrative disciplines who’ve sought asylum in law schools. He claims, with apparent disgust, that “many of these refugees have a natural inclination to base their legal teaching and writing on insights gleaned by them in the disciplines that were their first choice.” Yet he never adequately demonstrates that interdisciplinarity—and the concomitant diversification of perspectives and backgrounds among legal faculty—damages or thwarts legal education. In fact, what he seems to decry is the current curriculum of legal education, which, to his mind, should focus on judicial behavior and opinions rather than on other areas of the law. He stops short of proposing that administrators build a wall around law schools and make other departments pay for it, but he would, I sense, favor a moratorium on faculty immigration to law schools, and possibly mass deportations for the faculty he deems unworthy or unqualified.

But what Posner dubs “the Ph.Deification” of law faculties is not necessarily bad. Posner himself reveals the disadvantages of being a generalist, which is what law school prepare their students to be. His own understanding of pragmatism, or rather misunderstanding, is itself evidence that he would have benefited from deeper learning in that subject (say, more reading of Peirce and James and less of Dewey and Holmes) before adopting it as his personal methodology and proclaiming its virtues to the world. His literary criticism in Law and Literature betrays a sometimes embarrassing unfamiliarity with the trends and history of that discipline, and his early forays into the economic analysis of law have failed to influence the economics profession or to contribute anything of lasting value to professional economists. Indeed, it is perhaps because he knew more than untutored lawyers about economics—though substantially less than actual economists—that his “economic analysis of the law” for which he became famous was as influential as it was.

The legal community, and legal scholarship in particular, would benefit from welcoming qualified specialists and, in so doing, broaden the parameters of legal study and force lawyers out of their insularity. Professors of legal writing ought to be equipped with academic training in writing and the English language. Isn’t the systemic problem of bad legal writing self-perpetuating when legal writing professors are drawn, not from professional writers and teachers, but from lawyers? Moreover, professors of corporate law or finance ought to have academic training in those subjects—training that goes beyond the rudimentary glosses that find their way into judicial opinions written by non-expert judges. To read judicial opinions on a particular subject is not a fruitful way of learning that subject. A judge may have no experience in the insurance industry, for instance, when a difficult subrogation case arrives on his docket, yet he or she must handle the case and likely write an opinion on the facts and issues involved. The judge must rely on the evidence and briefing proffered by the parties to the case, not on personal expertise, which he or she lacks. Accordingly, the resulting opinion—inherently and intentionally limited to what it can accomplish—will not likely be sufficiently edifying or insightful to have staying power, that is, to teach future students and practitioners about the fundamentals of insurance.

Yet Posner is right to grumble about how the legal academy is populated by professors with little practical experience in law. In fact, law is the one discipline in which, counterintuitively, the more practical experience you have, the less marketable you are as a professor. He’s probably right, too, that there are too many law schools and too many law professors—and, hence, too many lawyers for the saturated legal market.

Targets of Posner’s ire include jargon, esoterica, obscurantism, and wordiness (“the fetishism of words”); the so-called Bluebook, which is a standard reference tool for lawyers concerning forms of citation to authorities (which is “maddening,” “superfluous,” “cancerous,” and “time-consuming”); student editing of law reviews (for which “neophytes” rather than peer reviewers make the critical editorial decisions); excessive, obtrusive, and needless footnoting in legal scholarship (due in part to the aforementioned neophytes); the culture of secrecy and mystery among federal judges; the decline in legal treatises; hyperspecialization among professors; the political nature of judicial appointments and confirmations (including an emphasis on biological diversity rather than diversity of backgrounds and experience); lifetime tenure for federal judges; legal formalism; the unintelligibility of legal opinions to non-lawyers—the list goes on. If you’re familiar with Posner and follow his writings, you’ve probably heard these grievances already. But they’re worth repeating if, in book form, they can reach larger audiences.

Still, one gets the sense that Posner rushed this book into his editors’ hands. A chunk of a paragraph on pages 225–26 reappears, verbatim, on page 271, thus undermining one of Posner’s central points: the importance of brevity in writing. Some of his accusations can’t be supported by evidence, such as “academic critics of judicial opinions feel superior to the opinions’ authors” (how could Posner divine this psychological insight?) or “the average law professor was a better law student than the average judge had been” (possibly true, but how does Posner know this?). Posner’s citations to Wikipedia, moreover, will raise eyebrows. Finally, it’s either dishonest or imperceptive for this one time opponent of same-sex marriage to now claim that bigotry alone explains the conservative and Christian position on that issue, which is barely relevant to Posner’s book and for which he offers little argument.

Posner is willing to depart from judicial norms and conventions. He believes that case precedent should not govern causes of action that entail novel issues and circumstances. Controversially, he encourages judges to look beyond the briefing and the record to ferret out the truth and context of matters inadequately illuminated by the parties to the case. Some of his suggestions will seem remote to the average reader and aimed at an elite (if not aloof) audience of politicians and federal judges. Whether federal judicial salaries account for regional cost-of-living differentials, for instance, matters little to most Americans. Nor do we care, quite frankly, whether judges lack collegiality; we just want them to rule the right way. One would hope personality conflicts wouldn’t influence the operative rules that shape human experience, but it turns out that judges can be petty.

Posner fittingly includes a question mark in the title to the final section of his book: “The Academy to the Rescue?” That punctuation mark reveals how skeptical—or at least tentative—Posner remains about the likelihood that his subjects will institute proper and constructive change. Most of his proposed solutions are sensibly plain: if student editing of law reviews is bad, do away with student editing of law reviews; if the law school curriculum is bad, change it; if judges write poorly, offer them training in writing through continuing legal education courses; if litigants and lawyers travel too far and at too great expense, allow them to videoconference.

Divergent Paths succeeds in demonstrating the need to refocus the legal curriculum on judicial behavior, if only by exposing judges’ decision-making to scrutiny (and ridicule) and demystifying the glorified processes of judicial deliberation. “Most judges evaluate cases in a holistic, intuitive manner,” Posner submits, “reaching a tentative conclusion that they then subject to technical legal analysis.” Their goal is to arrive at decisions that comport with prevailing notions of morality, justice, and common sense. Statutory idiosyncrasies or awkward case precedents will not, in Posner’s view, prevent these judges from reaching the result that people untrained in the law would likewise reach because of their ethical predispositions and basic sense of right and wrong. Judges are people too, and for the most part, they want to do what’s reasonable.

Humility has few friends among judges and law professors, so it is fun, one must admit, to watch Posner serve these cognoscenti a still-steaming pan of humble pie. But even sympathetic readers will grow weary of the relentless complaining after hundreds of pages of it. Perhaps Posner should have minded his own dictum: “If you want a flawless institution go visit a beehive or an anthill.” Then again, if Posner—who inhabits both the judiciary and the academy—doesn’t speak up, who will? Answers to these questions could determine how important Divergent Paths really is.

Adiós, Richard Posner

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Libertarianism on December 23, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Translated by and available here at Mises Hispano. Publicado el 21 de diciembre de 2009,  Traducido del inglés por Mariano Bas Uribe. El artículo original se encuentra aquí.

Con su último libro, A Failure of Capitalism, Richard Posner ha estado a la altura de su habitual mala fama como provocador. Viniendo de un hombre que es el fundador del movimiento del análisis económico del derecho y miembro electo de la Sociedad Mont-Pelerin, la sensacional declaración de que el capitalismo ha fracasado sin duda generará arqueos de cejas. Pero las reflexiones de Posner, además de prematuras, a menudo apestan a salidas falsas y grandes mentiras.

Los libertarios deberíamos elogiar a Posner, uno de los pensadores más originales de nuestro tiempo, por su permanente rechazo al pensamiento en grupo y a adecuarse a las ideologías trilladas. Sin embargo también deberíamos despedirle. Este último libro, una media vuelta en su carrera, hará poco para ayudar a los afectados por la crisis. Incluso puede que les haga más daño.

Posner sugiere que, en lugar de andarnos con eufemismos, llamemos espada a una espada: la crisis financiera es una depresión. Insiste en el desagradable término “depresión” porque los problemas actuales exceden con mucho cualquier caída modesta de las recientes décadas y ha producido una intervención gubernamental sin parangón desde la Gran Depresión. Posner probablemente tenga razón en este punto.

También tiene en general tazón en su crítica a la burbuja inmobiliaria, incluso sin llegar a atribuir la culpa real al papel del gobierno en las hipotecas subprime: promocionando exageradamente la propiedad de la vivienda, rebajando drásticamente los tipos de interés, canalizando una demanda artificial hacia el sector de la vivienda, etc. La tesis de Posner (de que la depresión representa un fallo del mercado producido por la desregulación) pivota sobre el mito de que los reguladores realmente regulan en lugar de servir a los intereses de los beneficiarios del Leviatán (es decir, ellos y sus compinches).

En cuanto a este último punto, Posner sí reconoce, entre otras cosas, que la SEC estaba vinculada a agentes del sector de los valores privados a pesar de su obligación de hacer cumplir las leyes federales de valores. De todos modos, no se ocupa correctamente de este problema o siquiera de los problemas relacionados que afectan a empresas patrocinadas por el gobierno (como Fannie, Feddie y similares) que privilegian los intereses de una élite pequeña a costa de la mayoría. En plata, Posner ignora el corporativismo. No tengo tiempo ni especio para ocuparme de este asunto ahora. Para saber más, recomiendo leer Meltdown, de Thomas E. Woods, un libro corto y bien razonado que es accesible para cualquiera (como yo).

La propuesta de Posner de que “necesitamos un gobierno más activo e inteligente para evitar que nuestro modelo de economía capitalista no descarrile” parece como mínimo quijotesca. Porque un gobierno inteligente (si existe algo así) minimizaría en lugar de aumentar las imposiciones estatales en la economía y permitiría a los recursos fluir de los sectores en declive a los que estén en expansión de acuerdo con las fuerzas naturales del mercado.

Cargado de referencias y apoyos implícitos a la economía keynesiana (cuyo poder reside, afirma Posner, en su “lógica sencilla y de sentido común”), este libro es un tour de force estatista. Mario J. Rizzo ha escrito extensamente acerca de la conversión keynesiana de Posner. Basta con decir que Posner argumenta por un lado que el gobierno puede prevenir las depresiones y por el otro que el gobierno ha fracasado en frenar la reciente crisis económica. Esta desconexión genera la pregunta ¿Más burocracia y regulación del gobierno habría ocasionado una respuesta más oportuna y coherente? ¿No es arriesgado poner tanto poder en algo con un historial tan imprevisible?

Posner sostiene que los “conservadores”, un término asombrosamente vago que deja sin definir, argumentan que el gobierno trajo la crisis con “presiones legislativas a los bancos para facilitar la propiedad de la vivienda facilitando los requisitos y condiciones para las hipotecas”. Este verdad que muchos autodenominados conservadores adoptaron esta postura. Pero Posner, aparentemente para calificar a estos “conservadores” como hipócritas, acusa al ex Presidente Bush de promocionar la propiedad de viviendas como parte de la agenda del conservadurismo compasivo.

Que Posner designe al Presidente Bush como el rostro de la “economía conservadora” (una categoría curiosamente equívoca en sí misma) no es sólo revelador, sino también francamente ridículo. Pues Bush (que defendió rescates masivos por parte del gobierno mucho antes que Obama) difícilmente pudo ser conservador en cualquier sentido del pequeño gobierno. Aumento los déficits presupuestarios mucho más que sus predecesores, nos llevó a dos costosas guerras y dobló la deuda nacional. A la luz de estos fracasos del gran gobierno, parece escandaloso que Posner afirme que “el camino estaba abierto para una ideología doctrinaria del libre mercado, pro-empresas y antiregulatoria que dominara el pensamiento económico de la Administración Bush”.

Posner consigue su objetivo de un “examen analítico conciso, constructivo, libre de jerga y acrónimos, no técnico, no sensacionalista y enfocado a la anécdota”, pero su apresurado análisis es totalmente defectuoso. Sorprende poco que este libro haya recibido poca atención. Muy probablemente escrito aprisa y corriendo por tener plazos estrictos, se lee como varios artículos de blog ajustados chapuceramente (Posner admite en el prólogo que ha incorporado varios artículos de blog).

Aunque no podemos reprocharle por las restricciones temporales de su proyecto, podemos y deberíamos apuntar que el prisa se ha cobrado su peaje. Por ejemplo, en un momento Posner afirma que los demócratas se apuntaron un tanto ante el público estadounidense al rescatar la industria del automóvil; poco después afirma que el público estadounidense se opuso al rescate de la industria del automóvil. En momentos como estos, Posner, al guisárselo y comérselo, defrauda una y otra vez.

Flirteando aparentemente con partidarios de ambos partidos políticos mayoritarios, se equivoca ad nauseam explicando un argumento falsamente conservador, un argumento falsamente liberal y luego su propio argumento, una cómoda posición entre ambos. Como otro gesto ante las audiencias masivas, evita las notas a pie de página y critica a la profesión económica (que considera un grupo de élite de académicos y teóricos financieros) por su aparente laxitud e ineptitud. Sin embargo, el populismo recién descubierto de Posner no es convincente.

Incluso los lectores simpatizantes se aburrirán pronto del estilo gallito de Posner. Posner es (por lo que yo sé) una persona magnánima, con una verdadera preocupación por la vidas de millones de estadounidenses, pero su libro, si se le hace caso, sólo empeoraría las condiciones actuales.

La Sociedad Mont Pelerin declara que sus miembros “ven peligrosa la expansión del gobierno”. Si Posner sigue compartiendo esta opinión, tiene una forma divertida de demostrarlo.

 

Review of Damon Root’s “Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court”

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Judicial Activism, Judicial Restraint, Jurisprudence, Libertarianism on January 28, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Spectator.

The sounds coming from the echo chamber suggest that Damon Root’s new book Overruled: The Long War for Control of the U.S. Supreme Court has been an uncheckered success. On the book’s cover Randy Barnett declares it

a riveting account of the raging debate over the future of our Constitution between those who contend that judges must ‘defer’ to legislatures and those who view the judiciary as an equal branch of government whose mandate is to secure the rights and liberties of the people by holding government to its just powers.

Writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog at the Washington Post, Ilya Somin praises the book as the “most thorough account of the libertarian-conservative debate over judicial review so far.”

In the Wall Street Journal Michael Greve critiques the obvious weaknesses in Root’s narrative — its oversimplification — with which, Greve says, “legal historians may quarrel.” But Greve accepts Root’s negative portrayal of Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Louis Brandeis, and Felix Frankfurter, notable expositors of the doctrine of judicial restraint. The trio, Greve claims, “had not the foggiest notion of the Constitution,” which they “loathed… as inimical to their vision of government by experts.”

Here’s a contrary opinion from a libertarian student of the law: Root’s book suffers from caricature. His approach pits essentialized binaries (what he calls “two competing visions”) against one another in a fight for the good that one binary allegedly represents. History is rich and complex and not simply or without consequence pressed into two-sided struggles. Root would have benefited from a more concerted effort to understand the range of perspectives and heuristics embraced by jurists across a spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs.

Root purports to tell a story “which stretches from the Civil War period to the present,” but the key players are just three people: Holmes, Robert Bork, and Justice Stephen Field. The first two represent the doctrine of judicial restraint that might send “the whole country straight to the devil”; the third man represents an “aggressive legal approach” that Root attributes to libertarianism. Root seeks to show how conservatives over the course of the twentieth century adopted a jurisprudence of restraint that was once the darling of progressives. The subtext is twofold: that today’s conservatives need to be told their legal theory derives from the left, and that current libertarian jurisprudents are part of a more dependable school of thought.

The problem is that the divide between libertarians and conservatives is not so clear in the legal context. In fact, many of both adhere to the basic tenets of originalism and textualism, although within those operative paradigms they may disagree. It’s also difficult to discern whether a judge is conservative or libertarian, since his job is to analyze constitutional provisions and statutes and prior decisions to determine what the law is, not what he wants it to be. A judge may be forced to rule against his political interests if the statutory authority is both unambiguous and constitutional; in such moments the judge has no power to overturn the will of the voters as manifest in legislation or to alter the Constitution.

The most devastating shortcoming of Overruled is its tendency to reduce complicated cases and figures to artless political categories. Root’s Holmes is a fictional type, a stock character, not the actual jurist of history. Look no further than Thomas Sowell for a libertarian — or someone often categorized as a libertarian — who champions Holmes’s jurisprudence rather than considering him an enemy. The real Holmes had much in common with F.A. Hayek, as Richard Posner has revealed in law review articles and in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.

Before Hayek, Holmes formulated his own version of “the knowledge problem,” maintaining that no one judge or group of judges should presume to understand the facts on the ground well enough to direct the goings on in local communities with disparate values and conflicting objectives. We learn the diverse preferences of citizens through the feedback mechanisms of the market and should not have them prescribed for us through the commands of judges and justices. That’s why Holmes deferred to state legislatures to, in his words, “prevent the making of social experiments that an important part of the community desires, in the insulated chambers afforded by the several states.”

Root advocates an inversion of Holmes’s jurisprudence, for something loosely akin to rule by Platonic Guardians: put wise activist philosophers on the bench, he seems to say, and they can waive their magic wands to perform libertarian miracles. With such power and leeway, couldn’t they also do the opposite? Couldn’t they impose on us a scheme of “rights” — to subsistence or a basic income — that’s antithetical to the free market? Scholars on the left such as Erwin Chemerinsky, Charles Black, Peter Edelman, and Frank Michelman champion the same expansive approach that Root celebrates. Their goal, however, is to empower the judiciary to impose a statist agenda by regulating business and eradicating economic liberties.

If Root’s claim is true that libertarian jurisprudents are “the sworn enemies” of Holmes, then why has Posner — who’s no dummy — declared Holmes to be “liberal only in the nineteenth-century libertarian sense, the sense of John Stuart Mill and, even more, because more laissez-faire, of Herbert Spencer”? Posner goes further, suggesting that Holmes “made laissez-faire his economic philosophy.”

Holmes was influenced by Spencer and versed in Mill. It isn’t accurate to assert, as Root does:

Spencer was regarded as the late nineteenth century’s leading proponent of full-throated laissez-faire. That’s why Holmes cast him as a villain in his Lochner dissent.

For starters, Holmes did not cast Spencer as a villain; he simply stated that Spencer’s views on economics were irrelevant to the Fourteenth Amendment, which secured federal citizenship for former slaves and prohibited the states from abridging the privileges or immunities of that citizenship. In reality, Holmes’s assessments of Spencer were mixed, and the justice’s letters are sprinkled with references to him. He cited Spencer while developing a theory of torts. He read Spencer’s autobiography. He criticized Spencer less for his philosophy than for his style and idealism, saying, for instance, “He is dull. He writes an ugly uncharming style, his ideals are those of a lower middle class British Philistine.”

Louis Menand has written that Holmes’s “personal sympathies were entirely with the capitalists.” That seems right: he once jested that “if they could make a case for putting Rockefeller in prison I should do my part; but if they left it to me I should put up a bronze statue of him.” Nevertheless, Holmes was no libertarian. What libertarian would proclaim, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society”? Just because he wasn’t a libertarian, however, doesn’t mean he offered no good insights.

Holmes read Adam Smith shortly before writing his dissent in Abrams v. U.S., in which he trumpeted that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This dissent has been dubbed “libertarian” by so many commentators that listing them all would take up the space of this entire review. Surprisingly, Root mentions Holmes’s affirmance of the conviction of Eugene Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917 but fails to address this more famous dissent, which doesn’t square with Debs’s case.

It’s possible to attack Holmes shrewdly, without raw polemics that skip over inconvenient facts. David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner does that, condemning the ideas and not the man who held them. Only the cartoonish cover of Bernstein’s book, which depicts Holmes being punched out by Justice Wheeler Peckham in a boxing ring, is unfair to Holmes.

Whether Bork can be easily lumped together with Holmes is another matter. Bork called Holmes’s dissent in Lochner “flawed,” even though he agreed with most of it. He decried Holmes’s marketplace metaphor in Abrams as “foolish and dangerous.”

Root’s book may appeal to already-within-the-pale libertarian readers but won’t interest many beyond that audience. That’s probably a good thing. The truth is that judicial restraint and judicial activism are not palpably partisan creeds that can be readily summarized or easily illustrated. Labeling them “conservative” or “libertarian” is not conclusive as to their substance. Judges with wildly divergent worldviews have pushed the limits of their authority to reach their desired result in certain cases.

In the book’s opening pages, Root asserts that Elena Kagan, who claimed in her confirmation hearings that the political branch, not the judiciary, was the proper mechanism for dispensing with bad laws, “had placed herself squarely within a long and venerable legal tradition that seeks to give the government wide control over regulatory affairs while simultaneously preventing most interference from the courts.” This is missing the point. The courts, which Root wishes to vest with wider control over regulatory affairs, are not necessarily an outside check on our problematically powerful government; they are part of our problematically powerful government.

The federal judiciary is an arm of the state, plain and simple, peopled by unelected judges and justices who aren’t accountable to the people. It’s thus strange to see Root cast the judiciary as the people’s branch. If a member of Congress isn’t representing the people’s interest, the people can, excuse me, throw the rat out. Federal judges, on the other hand, must be impeached.

Root’s recommendation for a more robust judiciary makes sense only if most judges are libertarians. Most aren’t. Therein lies the case for judicial restraint.

Shakespeare and the Law

In Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Shakespeare, Western Civilization on January 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

Shakespeare

Below is footage of a panel discussion between Justice Stephen Breyer, Professor Martha Nussbaum, Judge Richard Posner, and Professor Richard Strier that took place at the University of Chicago in 2009.  The subject of the discussion is “Shakespeare and the Law,” and the purpose of the panel was to counteract what was perceived as growing complacency and unoriginality in the law-and-literature movement.  That these four figures are on the same panel is reason enough to watch the video.

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