Designed to Be a Federal Judge: An Extended Commentary and Book Review of David M. Dorsen, Henry Friendly: Greatest Judge of His Era (2012)

Tory L. Lucas, Liberty University


David Dorsen recently published a biography entitled, Henry Friendly: Greatest Judge of His Era. Justice Antonin Scalia has described Dorsen's book as “a wonderful biography of a man who was top of the heap” and Friendly as “one of the most admired court of appeals judges in the country.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who clerked for Judge Friendly in 1979, has heaped great praise on his former boss: “He was the best judge of his generation, he founded one of the great New York law firms, he was one of the leading academics of this generation, [and] he was general counsel for Pan Am. There is no figure today who’s remotely comparable to that scope.” Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has gushed that “Friendly’s photographic memory combined with his analytical power, energy, speed, and work ethic” made him “the most powerful legal reasoner in American legal history” and “the greatest federal judge of his time.” Undoubtedly, Dorsen’s biography provides a detailed look at Friendly’s stellar academic, legal, and judicial career. The question that many readers might be left with is why Dorsen (and others) label Friendly the greatest judge of his era.

This Article attempts to address that question. Specifically, this Article asks a targeted audience — judges, attorneys, legal academics, and law students — to read Dorsen’s biography while exploring whether Friendly was a great judge and, perhaps more elementary, what makes a great judge. This Article concludes that Friendly was a great judge precisely because he dedicated his life to the pursuit of acquiring and mastering the necessary traits to be a great judge.

When the Article's author clerked for Judges William Jay Riley and Pasco M. Bowman II at the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, he got to know Judges Richard Sheppard Arnold and Morris Sheppard Arnold. Richard Arnold made this observation about his brother, “Morris is the best judge I know, because he is the judge I know best.” Knowledge of a judge is the only way to determine whether that judge is a great judge. Dorsen’s biography will increase your knowledge of Friendly, which will give you a better appreciation for his amazing judicial qualities and why he is routinely characterized as a great judge.

Does this Article recommend that you read Dorsen’s biography of Friendly? That depends on who you are and what you seek. Tellingly, Dorsen dedicates the biography, in part, to “the Judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals.” This book about a judge is for judges. But many attorneys, academics, and law students should have some interest to know why Friendly is often referred to as a great judge. If you are in the targeted audience as a judge, attorney, academic, or student who wants to ponder what makes a great judge while reading about one, then I recommend that you read Dorsen’s biography of Friendly.