Retired Judge Richard Posner: ‘I’m Forming Nationwide Pro-Bono Group’

Richard Posner
Then-Judge Richard Posner speaks at Harvard University. chensiyuan/Creative Commons
Richard Posner
Then-Judge Richard Posner speaks at Harvard University. chensiyuan/Creative Commons

Retired Judge Richard Posner: ‘I’m Forming Nationwide Pro-Bono Group’

A pledge by former federal appellate judge Richard A. Posner to spend his retirement helping people in court who lack an attorney is starting to materialize.

“I’m organizing a nationwide pro-bono law group,” said Posner, one of the nation’s most prolific and widely cited legal writers. “Pro bono” refers to work undertaken without charge.

Posner described an eclectic collection of attorneys and consultants — he calls them “partners” — with whom he has developed relations since an abrupt announcement last month that he was stepping down from the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The consultants include Kenneth Abraham, 70, a former Delaware prosecutor and self-described former cocaine addict who spent five years in prison on a felony theft conviction and now says he survives on Social Security checks while providing referrals and tips for challenging prison abuse and police misconduct.

“He’s very knowledgeable, very interesting,” Posner said of Abraham. “We talk a lot and he also sends me stuff. So, for example, he put me onto a shocking piece of information” about southern prosecutors converting convicted defendants into cheap labor “for chicken-processing plants that are dirty and smelly and very unpleasant.”

Abraham said he reached out to Posner last month after reading about his intention to help “pro-se litigants” — people who represent themselves in court cases instead of having a lawyer.

“I got his attention by sending articles like, ‘How the War on Drugs Destroyed Justice,’ ” Abraham said.

Posner said experts such as Abraham could do a lot for the people, especially inmates, that his group aims to help.

“Not only do they need a lawyer if they want to try to get their prison sentence shortened or to change the conditions in their prison,” Posner said, “but their lawyer may need someone like Ken Abraham who, although he gave up being a lawyer, would be a tremendous information source for anybody who was representing a prisoner.”

Posner has also been working closely with William C. Bond, 53, a writer and former tennis pro who said he ended up homeless due partly to representing himself in legal battles stemming from a book manuscript, Self-Portrait of a Patricide, that Bond called his “highly embellished and fictionalized” version of his father’s 1981 killing, in which Bond was adjudicated a delinquent.

This month Posner has taken steps to represent Bond as “advisory counsel” in the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th Circuit, where Bond claims a judge made prejudicial statements about him being a frequent litigant. In an underlying complaint, Bond alleges corruption among federal judges in Maryland.

Bond is a typical pro-se litigant “in the sense that he doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t have money,” Posner said. “He’s an example of someone that doesn’t appear to have the conventional credentials of a successful lawyer but he’s a very intelligent person.”

Posner said he not only wants to advise Bond in his litigation but bring him into his legal group as a partner.

“I have about six or seven [partners] lined up and I’m still looking for others,” Posner said. “I’m not going to employ them although, when they need money and I have the money, I will help them financially.”

Posner said he is planning to raise money from charitable sources including foundations.

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the 7th Circuit in 1981, Posner developed a reputation for pragmatism and wit and became one of the nation’s leading appellate judges. He wrote, by his count, more than 3,300 judicial opinions.

He has also authored more than three dozen books. Topics have ranged from antitrust law to moral theory, from intellectual property to counterterrorism.

Posner has been a University of Chicago Law School faculty member since 1969. He remains a senior lecturer there and lives in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

In the 1960s, Posner worked as an assistant to U.S. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights advocate later appointed to the Supreme Court, and as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

Chip Mitchell reports on criminal justice from WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipMitchell1.