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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Richard Posner

William Domnarski

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To purchase Richard Posner

Title: Richard Posner
Author: William Domnarski
Genre: Biography
Written: 2016
Length: 256 pages
Availability: Richard Posner - US
Richard Posner - UK
Richard Posner - Canada
Richard Posner - India

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Our Assessment:

B : briskly summary

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Criterion . 3/2017 Conrad Black
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/10/2016 John Fabian Witt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Domnarski seems to have done a conscientious survey of report cards, records, and peer interviews from earliest times. (...) It is not clear to me, even after the most attentive reading of this book and a good deal of Posnerís books and articles and judgments, that Posner has really done anything significant for the development of the law in the United States." - Conrad Black, The New Criterion

  • "The questions Domnarski asks are, What makes this extraordinary character tick -- and to what end ? (...) Domnarskiís biography reveals interesting details about the man." - John Fabian Witt, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Richard Posner has written extensively on many aspects of the law, including on the American federal judiciary, and has argued that there is too great a focus on Supreme Court justices, and that it would be valuable to have more biographies of the next tier of judges -- from the appellate and district courts. With this book, William Domnarski obliges, providing an overview of the life and career of one of the most renowned appellate court judges.
       While judges' lives tend not to be among the most colorful, the tremendous influence Posner has had (and, indeed, continues to have), and his voluminous writings on a wide variety of subjects certainly make for a life and body of work that warrants proper biographical treatment (like those of other leading appellate judges, such as Learned Hand and Henry Friendly). Indeed, it's somewhat surprising that Posner made it well into his 70s before anyone attempted a biography.
       Domnarski's book certainly packs it in -- in only 256 pages, Posner's life divided up into six periods, each of which is covered in a separate section. 'The First Thirty Years' is the most personal and traditionally-biographical -- and, as noted in quite a few of the footnotes, much of the material comes from the subject himself, whom Domnarski had occasion to interview at length, and, for example, also read and gave his notes to the author on both an early and the final draft of the book. Indeed, in the Acknowledgements Domnarski notes:

     Posner was wonderfully cooperative from the beginning. He gave me access to his archive at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library, sat for interviews, shared family memorabilia with me, answered my dozens of email queries, and provided me with a copy of his Yale thesis.
       Throughout, Domnarski does rely on a great number of sources in what is certainly a heavily researched book, including, in this first section, getting comments also from some of Posner's classmates from the various schools and then universities he attended. But especially in the first part it's sometimes hard not to feel that Posner has shaped the narrative, as Domnarski doesn't seem to probe too much beyond the information he has been given (on a platter), especially about Posner's family and family life. His interesting, Soviet-sympathetic parents (whom Posner however describes as "limousine radicals") -- especially a somewhat overbearing doting mother who was a teacher, and very active in the union (and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962) -- are fairly quickly dealt with and soon disappear almost entirely from the scene. Indeed, among the oddities of the biography is how little of Posner's personal life is taken into account: his parents only crop up again very late, when there is mention of his mother's decline in old age and then death (and even less about his father), and while there is mention of Posner marrying, and having children, there's barely a word about him as family man, much less any family incidents (beyond the cursory mention of the death of his mother).
       From early on Posner's brilliance is evident, and Domnarski chronicles the path of academic success that included Posner not bothering to complete high school but jumping to Yale after eleventh grade (as was then still possible for select students) all the way to Posner's presidency of the Harvard Law Review. From early on, too, the speed with which Posner was able to write is evident -- and the sheer volume of his output, and its quality, remarked on. Domnarski goes in for a lot of personal commentary from fellow-travelers along the different stations of Posner's academic and professional life, and it's amusing to see the reactions to Posner beyond the general admiration for his abilities, with a back and forth about exactly how arrogant he was and is particularly prominent. (Obviously, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way, even as many also praise aspects of his working-personality; (over-)awe also tends to color much of this personal commentary.)
       Domnarski usefully does present the interim years, until Posner was appointed to the judiciary, and Posner's embrace of 'law and economics' quite well, and both here and once he was on the bench Posner's calculated efforts to spread his gospel -- including, for example, avoiding publishing in law reviews, because he felt the word wouldn't get out that way -- is quite fascinating.
       Appointed to the Seventh Circuit in 1981, Posner quickly established his own style and way of doing things -- from writing his own opinions (in distinctive style, and not bound by many conventions, as Domnarski details) to going beyond what the cases and parties argued (to the annoyance of many, including occasionally the Supreme Court).
       The final four sections of the biography each cover a period of Posner's judicial career, and Domnarski uses a similar outline in each section. Focusing on the distinctive aspects of each of these periods, Domnarski also considers specifics from period to period, including Posner's Supreme Court record (how many of 'his' cases were confirmed or denied) in each, or, for example, the Almanac of the Feceral Judiciary evaluations of him as a judge. Domnarski also enjoys tracking Posner's citation-record(s) over the years, as he is -- by far -- the most widely cited circuit court judge; these are fun statistics, but also feel a bit much like yet another information-dump in a book full of piles of them.
       If strong on the development of Posner's focus on economics, Domnarski doesn't track Posner's late-career shift to pragmatism nearly as well -- stating more than showing it. The quotations make for amusing reading -- an early Supreme Court rebuke for Posner's "hypertechnical jurisdictional purity", for example, as reminder of how strict Posner could be in some of his readings, while more recent decisions tend much more to the pragmatic -- but Domnarski's over-reliance on these suggest an unwillingness to take a position (on his part), or to frame his own argument. Similarly, Domnarski usefully summarizes (in very summary manner) Posner's book-publications, but then also relies extensively on the review-reactions to the books -- helpful, to some extent, in seeing what their impact and influence was, at least in the short term, but often falling short in integrating them into any sort of big picture.
       There's something appealing about Domnarski's willingness to examine as much data as he can about Posner -- right down to noting:
The mark helps us follow along in opinions that track his thinking process and, via the exclamation marks, his reactions to the subjects at hand. What is a rarity for others is commonplace for Posner. Over the years he has used the exclamation mark to convey emotions more than three hundred times. Other judges barely make it into double digits for a career. Henry Friendly used an exclamation mark once. Learned Hand never used one.
       But ultimately Richard Posner is too much of this: carefully collected information rather than career- -- and much less life- -- story. In this sense it is quite a useful book -- though a more exhaustive index and, for example, at least a bibliography of all of Posner's book publications, would have helped considerably in this regard, too -- and as summary-overview it's hard to find much fault with it. But it is a limited work -- not only very much professional (rather than personal) biography, but also so fact- and data-focused that only limited aspects of the man and career emerge.
       Reading like one of those 'very short introduction'-volumes, Richard Posner is certainly packed -- but too little of it, and him, is unpacked.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2016

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Richard Posner: Reviews: Richard A. Posner: William Domnarski: Books by Richard A. Posner under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Biographical works under review
  • Books on Legal subjects at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American lawyer and author William Domnarski was born in 1953.

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© 2016-2017 the complete review

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