Mr. Liberty

Learned Hand: The Man and the Judge

by Gerald Gunther
Knopf, 818 pp., $35.00

After law school, I clerked for a year for Judge Learned Hand, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. One evening I had to drop off a memorandum at his house, and I asked a young woman whom I had just met, and who was having dinner with me, to come along because it would take only a second. But when Hand answered the door, he invited us in, made dry martinis, and talked to my new friend for almost two hours about art history, his old friend Bernard Berenson, the state of Harvard College, New York politics, the Supreme Court, and much more. When we left, walking down the brownstone steps, she asked, “If I see more of you, do I get to see more of him?”

Learned Hand was one of America’s greatest judges and now, through Gerald Gunther’s brilliant biography, we can all see much more of him. Hand wrote prodigiously—thousands of judicial decisions, and tens of thousands of memoranda to his fellow judges, letters to his legions of friends, academic essays, ceremonial speeches, and philosophical essays—and an enormous volume of material was at Gunther’s disposal soon after the judge’s death in 1961. Gunther has had a very distinguished academic career in the intervening decades—he is a professor of constitutional law at Stanford Law School, and the author of one of the leading casebooks in that subject. But Hand’s family and admirers had been growing impatient for his biography.

It was worth the wait. Learned Hand, at over eight hundred pages, is not only comprehensive but penetrating and illuminating as well. Its dust jacket, with the famous brooding photograph of Hand as the Platonic form of a judge, eyes glowing under the famous eyebrows, is a splendid bonus. Gunther’s book combines four different stories, each of which would have made a book on its own, and its achievement can be best appreciated by reviewing each of these stories in turn.

The first is a history of America’s second century, from the perspective of a public and sensitive man who lived through almost all of it. Hand was born in 1872, a few years after the Civil War ended, and died in 1961, when John Kennedy was president. Describing his life means describing many of the central American institutions, personalities, and movements of those ninety years. At Harvard College in the 1890s Hand studied philosophy with Santayana, Royce, and James; he also made friends with Jews there, which helped to spoil his chances for membership in the exclusive Porcellian club, which he badly wanted. At Harvard Law School he watched the beginnings of Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell’s transformation of American legal education through the case system. His own law practice, first in Albany, where he had been born, and then in New York, was dull, but it was still possible then for a bright, personable young lawyer with a good academic …

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