This is the second in a series of posts recalling what it was like to serve as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman.
We currently live in a time in which we’re increasingly aware of the enormously important role that judges play in our lives and how critical it is to have judges who are fair and unbiased. For this reason, I think it’s useful to talk about how judges perform their jobs.
Thanks to the recent film focused on the trial of the “Chicago 7,” Judge Hoffman has garnered new attention in the public eye. I’ve attempted, in this series of posts, to tell exactly what it was like to work for him for two highly significant years.
What were Hoffman’s quirks? How did he conduct business, on and off the bench? As Hoffman’s law clerk from the summer of 1967 through the summer of 1969, I observed him on and off the bench, in his role as a “hanging judge” as well as his role as a charming personality who enjoyed engaging in clever repartee. “Warts and all,” here is what Julius J. Hoffman was really like.
• His calendar
Judge Hoffman was obsessed with his “calendar.” The court administrators published statistics on every judge in the district (the Northern District of Illinois), and Hoffman was fanatic about being first in the judges’ rankings every month.
Why was he so obsessed with this single evaluation of his judgeship? My guess is that he saw these statistics as an objective measure of his worth as a judge. Although the statistics did nothing more than state how many cases a judge had dismissed or tried or otherwise removed from his calendar, Hoffman wanted to be at the top of the list. Then the whole world would know that he was a judge who disposed of cases efficiently, had the smallest number of cases left on his calendar at the end of every month, and therefore was–had to be–a great and admirable judge.
To achieve this ranking, Hoffman sometimes trampled on the rights of the criminal defendants who appeared before him and often rushed to judgment in his civil cases, forcing undesired settlements and otherwise compromising the pursuit of justice in his courtroom. The appellate court that reviewed his conduct often took him to task for it. Yet he continued his relentless pursuit of first place. In my view, his obsession with being first in this ranking was in large part responsible for much of his erratic behavior.
• His bias in favor of the government
Hoffman’s bias in criminal cases reflected a general bias in favor of the government and an even more fundamental conservative streak. He was, after all, appointed to the federal bench by a Republican, President Eisenhower, and his background and relative affluence (in part due to his wealthy wife) probably accounted for some of his conservatism. But because he was so willing to favor the government in criminal cases, he frequently wound up in big trouble. One criminal case, the “Chicago 7” trial, ultimately led to his downfall.
• His delegation of decision-making to his law clerks
Hoffman’s desire to have the “best” calendar in town worked to the benefit of those of his law clerks who relished assuming a large measure of responsibility for Hoffman’s rulings. (I happily fit into this category.) While he spent almost his entire day on the bench, presiding over trials and disposing of motions, his two clerks were working in chambers on the rulings that he would later adopt as his own.
Of course, he made some rulings spontaneously from the bench without his clerks’ assistance. But virtually all of the pre-trial and post-trial motions filed in Hoffman’s cases were decided by his clerks. So while he sat on the bench, dispensing his own brand of justice, his two law clerks were working hard back in chambers, researching the law that applied to these motions and other matters (like jury instructions) filed by the lawyers in his cases, and writing the rulings that Hoffman later read from the bench.
In the two years I worked for Hoffman, we law clerks probably decided at least 95 percent of the motions filed in his cases. And he rarely overruled our decisions. Once in a great while, he would walk into our part of chambers, hand back a written decision, and ask us to rewrite it. But he never took the opportunity to do his own research or do any rewriting, even when he was displeased with the decision we had left on his desk.
The tremendous degree of responsibility we had, as a result, was astounding. At first, I was amazed at how much power I had been given. Later, I realized that I was, to some extent, dispensing justice where Hoffman himself never would have.