This post is the third in a series of posts recalling what it was like to work as a law clerk for Judge Julius J. Hoffman.
• His treatment of lawyers
Hoffman tended to treat most lawyers disrespectfully. During court sessions, he would berate lawyers for their failings, no matter how minor, and he would generally speak to them in a condescending tone. Seated in the courtroom, where I sometimes had to listen to lawyers’ arguments or witnesses’ testimony, I often found myself cringing when Hoffman demeaned a lawyer who appeared before him.
There were a few exceptions. He was generally impressed with lawyers from the biggest, most prominent firms in the city, and he tended to treat them better than less well-connected lawyers.
He also treated government lawyers with some deference, and he was almost courtly to the few women lawyers who appeared before him. If a lawyer was both a woman and a representative of the U.S. government, Hoffman would treat her like a queen. A woman friend of mine who worked for a federal agency could never understand why lawyers complained about Hoffman. She thoroughly enjoyed her appearances in his courtroom.
• Hell, no, I won’t…publish
Hoffman almost never published his opinions. He justified his refusal to publish by saying he didn’t want lawyers to throw his own words back at him in a later case. Early in his judicial career he had apparently published some opinions, and lawyers did just that. At that point, he swore off publication.
The only decision of mine that Hoffman chose to publish involved an arcane tax issue involving Rosehill Cemetery. Later, when Hoffman went along with a controversial ruling I wrote in a case involving the inmates of Cook County Jail, he read the ruling from the bench but refused to publish it, despite numerous requests from lawyers that he do so.
I guess he thought he had done enough just reading the damned thing from the bench. He was not about to put it in black and white. The ACLU ended up buying a copy of the transcript from the court stenographer and making copies of it, so the opinion eventually was widely circulated, but in less-than-official form. (I’ll have more to say more about this case in Post #4.)
• His view of habeas corpus petitions
In the late ’60s, both state and federal prisoners tried (as they still do) to get out of prison by filing habeas corpus petitions. Some prisoners were fairly skillful jailhouse lawyers who submitted petitions citing legal authority for their claims. Others sent crudely drafted handwritten pleas with very little to go on.
Hoffman gave clear instructions to his law clerks that we were never to grant a habeas corpus petition, no matter what sort of claim the prisoner alleged. He directed us to find something, anything, on which to base a dismissal of the petition.
I quickly learned a few shortcuts and repeatedly cited the same language, followed by the same precedents, over and over again. But in a few cases I couldn’t see any way to get around a prisoner’s claim. The prisoner had made a genuine constitutional argument, and I believed it was necessary to hold a hearing where he could make his case. But whenever I tried to explain this to the judge, he blew me off.
“I will never allow a prisoner to be brought to my courtroom for a hearing,” he declared. “If the Seventh Circuit wants to order me to hold a hearing, I will hold it, but I will never order one myself. Find some reason to deny the petition!” So even in those few cases, I had to comply with the judge’s position and come up with some pretext to deny the petitions–hoping, of course, that the prisoners were not too discouraged to file an appeal with the court of appeals.
In the case of one prisoner, I was happy to go along with the judge’s dictates. Jack K. was a perennial petitioner who must have filed one or two handwritten petitions every month. He filed so many that we never took any of them seriously. Prisoners like him eventually led the federal court system to clamp down on all prisoners and impose rules that would prevent abuse of the system by people like Jack.