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Judge Posner, one of world’s ‘leading public intellectuals,’ retires

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner | (Sun-Times file photo)

Judge Richard Posner — a legal giant who authored more than 60 books and upwards of 3,300 court opinions and “had an impact around the world” — plans to hang up his robes on Saturday.

In a statement issued Friday, Posner, 78, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago, said, “I look forward to continuing to teach and publish, with a particular focus on social justice reform.”

His retirement was first reported by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

“For more than 50 years, Judge Posner has been one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States — indeed, the world,” Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane Wood said in a statement. “He is one of the most distinguished people to ever sit on the federal bench. His opinions have had an impact around the world.”

He recently wrote in an article that there should be mandatory retirement for federal judges, at “probably 80.”

“I am proud to have promoted a pragmatic approach to judging during my time on the Court, and to have had the opportunity to apply my view that judicial opinions should be easy to understand and that judges should focus on the right and wrong in every case,” he said on Friday.

In 1962, Posner became the law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. From 1965 to 1967, Posner served as assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Judge Richard A. Posner, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. File Photo.
Judge Richard A. Posner, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. File Photo.

President Ronald Reagan appointed Posner to the 7th Circuit in 1981, and Posner served as the appeals court’s chief judge from 1993 to 2000. He has taught at the University of Chicago’s Law School since 1981 and authored more than 60 books since 1973, along with dozens more legal journal articles.

“During my time on the bench, I have authored more than 3,300 opinions and presided over many trials as a volunteer judge in the district court,” he said on Friday.

For more than five years, Posner has been a legal contributor at Slate. Last month, in a discussion with U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, Posner was asked if he believed in “judicial activism,” where “judicial rulings … are suspected of being based on personal or political considerations, rather than on existing law.”

Posner replied: “I don’t know what ‘existing law’ means except views currently held by many judges, lawyers, and politicians. Those views are likely to be fluid, changeable — in accordance with new social needs, attitudes, and authority. Law means one thing to conservatives, another to liberals. It has no fixity.”

Posner told NPR in 2012 that despite his reverence for Reagan and conservative economist Milton Friedman, “I’ve become less conservative since the Republican Party started becoming goofy.”

“There’s been a real deterioration in conservative thinking. And that has to lead people to re-examine and modify their thinking,” he said.

The idea of “tradition” was front-and-center in the 7th Circuit’s courtroom in 2014 as the three-judge panel heard arguments on same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin.

Posner asked Timothy Samuelson, then an assistant Attorney General in Wisconsin, why the state Legislature put so many obstacles in front of “these people,” meaning same-sex couples.

“I think tradition can be a reason,” Samuelson said.

“How can tradition be a reason for anything? I don’t get that,” Posner replied, mentioning how America once had a tradition of forbidding interracial marriage.

“So in other words, tradition per se is not a ground for continuing. We’ve been doing a stupid thing for 100 years, a thousand years, we’ll keep doing it because it’s tradition?” Posner said.

In ruling in favor of same-sex couples, Posner wrote the bans in Indiana and Wisconsin were “totally implausible.”