Posner on same-sex marriage

That Judge Posner has changed his mind on the same-sex marriage question is only slightly less dramatic than if the Pope decided that the Church had been too tough on Satan. Less bombastically, Posner’s change of position was a sea change in the judge’s thinking.  Professor Ronald K.L. Collins details this about-face in Posner on Same-Sex Marriage: Then and Now. It is captivating reading.

As I concluded Professor Collin’s piece, I thought of Mr. Justice Holmes. Some may remember that he too changed his views dramatically on the value of free speech in his Abrams’ dissent. See Thomas Healy, The Justice Who Changed His Mind: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Story Behind Abrams v. United States, 39 J. Sup. Ct. History (March 2014)  (download free at the Social Science Research Network) (Abstract: “It is one of the great legal and intellectual mysteries of the twentieth century: Why did Oliver Wendell Holmes change his mind about the value of free speech in the turbulent months following World War I and write his landmark dissent in Abrams v. United States? In this Article, I provide the most comprehensive answer yet to this question. Relying upon extensive archival research – including a number of previously unpublished letters – I argue that Holmes’s dramatic transformation was the result of two related, but distinct developments. First, during 1918 and 1919, Holmes was the target of an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort carried out by a group of young progressives that included Harold Laski, Felix Frankfurter, Learned Hand, and the editors of the New Republic. Holmes cared deeply for these young men, viewing some of them like sons, and was thus surprisingly susceptible to their influence. Second, at the same time these men were lobbying Holmes to adopt a more expansive view of free speech, two of them – Laski and Frankfurter – came under attack for their own radical views. Holmes learned about their difficulties in the spring of 1919 and wrote several letters on their behalf. Then, when trouble flared up again that fall, Laski and Frankfurter asked Holmes if he would write an article on tolerance for the Atlantic Monthly. Holmes declined, citing his heavy workload, but several days later he wrote his dissent in Abrams “as if possessed,” he explained to Frankfurter. Thus, I argue, Holmes’s dissent can be seen as more than just an abstract defense of free speech. From the perspective of his young friends, it was a defense of them.”).

It is well-known that Posner holds Holmes in high regard. See, e.g., Richard A. Posner, The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (Paperback – January 1, 1997). Consequently, we should not be surprised then that Posner emulates the great man in the flexibility of the mind. Indeed, Professor Collins provides us important insights into the ability of Posner to see the world differently as time marches on without the slightest concern about the bugaboo of “inconsistency.”

I urge you to read Collins’ piece. As you do, remember Emerson’s dictum: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”


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