Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

This month I’m beginning something new.

I’m beginning a series of posts that will focus on my personal recollections of working as a law clerk for a federal judge–a judge who became notorious shortly after I left my clerkship.

Judge Julius J. Hoffman was a U.S. district court judge in Chicago who became notorious when he presided over the “Chicago 7” trial that began in the fall of 1969.

As Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969, I observed him closely throughout my two-year tenure with him. This two-year period included, in its final months, the road that led to the “Chicago 7” trial.

This trial is now the subject of a new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Because the film has inspired new interest in Judge Hoffman, this seemed to be an appropriate time to publish my recollections.

As Judge Hoffman’s law clerk during the two years before the trial began, I could foresee much of what would happen in his courtroom.  I later sat in on the trial, as a spectator, on two very cringe-worthy occasions.

This is the first post in a series that will examine what it was like to clerk for a judge like Hoffman. I’ll begin at the beginning: my first encounter with Judge Hoffman and how I came to work for him.

I’ll go on to describe a wide range of issues that arose during my tenure. These will include my observations during the frenetic time just before and during the “Chicago 7” trial. I’ll conclude with my final communications with the judge, just before I left Chicago in 1970.

Post #1

          In the fall of 1969, Judge Julius J. Hoffman moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of national attention.  Although he had earned a reputation within the Chicago legal community as an irascible judge with a strong conservative bent, he was otherwise a little-known figure.  The public knew him only as one of Chicago’s U.S. district judges, and as such, he was generally respected.  Even lawyers who had appeared before him were compelled to admit that, despite his personal shortcomings, he could sometimes be an excellent judge.

          All that changed in the fall of 1969.  Assigned to be the presiding judge in what became known as the “Chicago 7” trial, Hoffman was suddenly the focus of journalists and lawyers from every corner of the United States, even the world.  Suddenly his courtroom demeanor was under a microscope, probed for rationality and fairness.  And just as suddenly, he became a national villain, even a national joke.

My first encounter with the judge

          In his custom-made elevator shoes and his black robe (double-stitched for longer wear), Judge Julius J. Hoffman would stride imperiously into his courtroom.  He would seat himself behind his imposing judicial bench, his tiny figure almost lost in the high-ceilinged courtroom he occupied on the 23rd floor of the federal courthouse in Chicago’s Loop.

“The motion will be dee-nied!”

                I can still hear the judge spouting those five words, the five words he must have said a thousand times during the two years I worked for him.  He always seemed to be denying motions rather than granting them.  But that was just one feature of this eccentric and soon-to-be-notorious judge.

          Julius Hoffman was a diminutive, bald-headed man with a prickly ego that was easily punctured.  But when I met with him over the Christmas holidays in 1966, he struck me as a charming and altogether reasonable person to clerk for.  I was in my last year of law school, and Hoffman was one of only three U.S. district judges in Chicago who had agreed, in that benighted era, to interview me, a woman, for the job of law clerk.

          For a number of reasons, Hoffman became my first choice of the three, and when he offered me the job, I decided to take it.  Although I had done almost no research into what kind of judge Hoffman was, I was thrilled with the simple prospect of being any federal judge’s law clerk.

          My failure to research Hoffman’s reputation later came back to haunt me.  I soon discovered that I was working for an irascible, difficult man who had unusual proclivities and a bizarre personality that often played itself out on the bench.  So although I loved my job as a federal judge’s law clerk, and I learned a great deal from my experience working in the federal courts, I was sometimes sorry I had so quickly settled on Hoffman as the federal judge to clerk for.

2 responses to “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

  1. This is going to be a good one. I can’t wait for your next post.

  2. Pingback: This story begins in Acapulco, but it doesn’t end in Yellowknife | Susan Just Writes

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