Judge Richard Posner leaves the bench: One of our most important judges and legal scholars has just retired

Judge Richard Posner, who has served on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1981, retired Saturday. He’s one of the most important judges and legal scholars of our time. But to me, he’s more than that. He’s a friend.

The 78-year-old judge was my professor in law school. Ever since, whenever I’m in Chicago, we meet for lunch. And just in case you’re wondering, he picks up the tab.

So I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’d like to talk a bit about both the public and private Posner.

For the last few decades, he’s composed over 3,300 opinions and published about a book a year. Some have called him a conservative with a libertarian bent. But truthfully, he doesn’t fit well into any camp. He supports a pragmatic approach to judging that has guaranteed attacks from both right and left.

Regardless, what many will miss most is his judicial writing. In a profession filled with arid, jargon-riddled prose, Posner was actually fun to read.

For instance, in a case about whether nude dancing is protected by the First Amendment, the judge observed that the name of the establishment in question, the Kitty Kat Lounge, “does not promise high culture.”

And after watching a videotape of the performance, Posner was moved to note the young women are “presentable although not striking” and dance “with vigor but without accomplishment.” Nevertheless, he found the indecency statute being challenged unconstitutional.

And he knew how to cut to the essence of an issue with a striking phrase.

When penalties in drug sentencing guidelines were based on the weight of what was sold – thus a dose of LSD on a sugar cube would require significantly more punishment than the same dose on lighter blotter paper – Posner wrote: “To base punishment on the weight of the carrier medium makes about as much sense as basing punishment on the weight of the defendant.”

Though he could be tough on lawyers when he was on the bench, in person he couldn’t have been more gracious and good-natured. And though I knew he was a busy man, when we dined he never made me feel he was in any rush.

Posner was a raconteur, sometimes talking about the august people he’d met, sometimes about the adventures of his beloved cat.

And he wouldn’t hold back. He had no trouble saying certain politicians or judges were buffoons. I remember him telling one story about how incredibly dull and pompous a particular Supreme Court justice was. (Sorry for not revealing names, but if you Google Posner, you’ll see he’s attacked plenty of people on the record.)

The judge could take it as well as dish it out. We’d discuss his opinions and he truly didn’t mind if you argued he’d gotten it wrong. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who could face even the harshest criticism with such equanimity.

He also has, I must admit, an odd sense of humor. He loves comedies, but sometimes had me scratching my head at his favorites. For instance, he is a big fan of Woody Allen’s poorly reviewed “Magic In The Moonlight” (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 51 percent). Even stranger, he loves the Joe Pesci farce “8 Heads In A Duffel Bag” (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 11 percent).

Judge Posner’s abrupt retirement announcement was a surprise. Still, he has supported mandatory retirement for judges, so he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

And we’re not losing him entirely. He said he will continue to teach and publish – in other words, do the work of one, instead of several.

I plan to be in Chicago soon. I hope he’s still available. And now that he’s out of a job, lunch is on me.