Richard Posner, How Judges Think
“I am struck by how unrealistic are the conceptions of the judge held by most people, including practicing lawyers and eminent law professors, who have never been judges—and even by some judges. This unrealism is due to a variety of things, including the different perspectives of the different branches of the legal profession—including also a certain want of imagination. It is also due to the fact that most judges are cagey, even coy, in discussing what they do. They tend to parrot an official line about the judicial process (how rule-bound it is), and often to believe it, though it does not describe their actual practices. . . . This book parts the curtain a bit.” — from the Introduction
In How Judges Think, Richard Posner provides clear, accessible insight into how judges and justices decide cases. When conventional legal materials enable judges to ascertain the true facts of a case and apply clear pre-existing legal rules to them, Posner argues, they do so straightforwardly; that is the domain of legalist reasoning. However, in non-routine cases for which existing rules are inadequate, judges’ decisions are informed by their experience, their emotions, and their often unconscious beliefs, influenced by their social, religious, political, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. In doing so, they take on a legislative role, though one that is constrained by professional ethics, opinions of respected colleagues, and limitations imposed by other branches of government.
Occasional legislators, judges are motivated by political considerations in a broad and sometimes a narrow sense of that term. In that open area, most American judges are legal pragmatists, focusing on the consequences of a decision in both the short and the long term, rather than on its antecedent logic. Legal pragmatism so understood is really just a form of ordinary practical reasoning, rather than some special kind of legal reasoning. Supreme Court justices are uniquely free from the constraints on ordinary judges and uniquely tempted to engage in legislative forms of adjudication. As such, Posner argues, the Supreme Court, more than any other court, is best understood as a political court.
Richard A. Posner is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and a Circuit Judge for the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.
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