Tag Archives: Northwestern University Law School

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #10

This is the tenth and final post in a series recalling what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk.  It will encompass the following:

  1. Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial
  2. My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983
  3. My life, post-clerkship (in brief)

Concluding remarks on the “Chicago 7” trial

What happened in the appellate court?

            After reading several rulings by the appellate court, I’ve come away with this:  There was plenty of blame to go around.

            At the end of the trial in February 1970, the jury found five of the defendants guilty of the statutory crime with which they were charged:  the intent to incite a riot.  These criminal convictions were reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.  A new trial never took place because the Justice Department apparently chose not to bring new charges against these defendants.

            In addition to the criminal convictions, Judge Hoffman convicted all seven defendants and two of their lawyers of contempt of court for their behavior during the trial.  Most but not all of the contempt convictions were also overturned by the appellate court.

            The appellate court issued a lengthy and detailed opinion reviewing the defendants’ criminal convictions. In that opinion, the court concluded that the Anti-Riot Act was not unconstitutional.  It also discussed the evidence presented during the trial, as well as the conduct of the prosecutors, the defendants, and the judge.  If you’d like to read the appellate court’s opinion, you can find it online:  United States v. Dellinger, 472 F.2d 340 (7th Cir. 1972).

            In a later ruling, in 1974, the appellate court focused on the contempt convictions issued by Judge Hoffman. (These were, as I noted above, separate from the criminal convictions.)  In this ruling, the appellate court acknowledged that three of the defendants (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and David Dellinger) were guilty of serious misbehavior and “overwhelming misconduct,” including the wearing of judicial robes in court.  It also upheld the contempt conviction of attorney William Kunstler, noting that his bitterness and anger on at least one occasion “constituted a vicious personal attack on the judge,” delaying and disrupting the trial.

            When the appellate court reversed the defendants’ criminal convictions, it commented on the defense’s arguments attacking Judge Hoffman’s conduct during the trial.  The court noted Hoffman’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense” and his comments that were “often touched with sarcasm.”  The appellate court stated:  “Taken individually any one was not very significant and might be disregarded as a harmless attempt at humor.  But cumulatively, they must have telegraphed to the jury the judge’s contempt for the defense.” 

            The appellate court’s comments might well have applied to other criminal prosecutions that took place in Hoffman’s courtroom.  The judge often made similarly “harmless attempts at humor” that were attacked by defendants on appeal.  But in most of the other criminal prosecutions over which he presided, the trials were far shorter and the defendants and the charges against them were far less newsworthy.  In addition, Hoffman’s comments were never broadcast by the media to the same extent.  For these reasons, Hoffman had formerly escaped the kind of criticism that was aimed at him during this much more newsworthy trial.

            We should also note the appellate court’s focus on the conduct of the trial by the government prosecutors.  The court criticized them harshly. These lawyers, representing the Nixon administration, took advantage of Hoffman’s general bias in favor of the government, encouraging him to rule in favor of the prosecution–as was his wont–regardless of the merits of its position. In its 1972 ruling (cited above), the court stated that the prosecutors’ remarks “fell below the standards applicable to a representative of the United States.”  Doesn’t that say a lot?  I think it does.  The court pointed out some examples, such as prosecutors’ calling the defendants “evil,” “obscene liars,” “violent anarchists,” and “predators.”

            At the same time, it’s only fair to add that it was clear from the beginning that these particular defendants chose not to play the game the way defendants are supposed to.  They were determined to upset the courtroom at every opportunity.  A lot of the blame for the fiasco that followed must therefore fall on their shoulders as well. 

            My conclusion, when all is said and done?  The government never should have brought the indictment in the first place.  It was ill-conceived, and although the statute under which it was brought was later held by the Seventh Circuit to be constitutional, it was a highly dubious piece of legislation, spawned by the turmoil and the upheavals of its time.  If the Nixon administration had not pursued the indictment, this whole sorry chapter in U.S. legal history would never have been written.

            In the end, Hoffman’s reputation was besmirched as almost no other federal judge’s reputation has been, before or since.  The Sorkin film has revived interest in the trial, and in that film, Hoffman is portrayed as the arch-villain of the piece.   But in retrospect, I believe that this portrayal is not entirely justified.  With all of his faults, Hoffman was not an evil or cruel man.  I think he saw his role as that of a presiding judge compelled to impose order during a frenetic and chaotic trial, a trial unlike any he had ever encountered.

A side note on judicial findings of contempt

            During my high school years, I was a devoted fan of the TV series “Perry Mason.”  Every episode concluded with a courtroom scene, and I watched with fascination to see how admirable defense lawyer Perry and his opposing counsel, along with Perry’s clients and any witnesses, conducted themselves in the courtroom.  The judge’s rulings also interested me.  D.A. Hamilton Burger’s repeated objections that certain testimony was “incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial” lodged in my mind, and when I took a course in Evidence during law school, I recalled many of the judges’ rulings.  Classmates who were questioned by Professor Chadbourn sometimes couldn’t come up with an answer, and I often thought to myself, “Didn’t you ever watch ‘Perry Mason’?  If you had, you’d probably know the answer.”  (I did.)

            “Perry Mason” reruns now appear on late-night TV in San Francisco, and I occasionally watch one.  In a recent episode dating from the 1950s (“The Case of the Purple Woman”), someone in the courtroom (not a lawyer) shouted out an objection in the middle of witness testimony.  The judge first issued a $25 fine for contempt.  But when this individual repeated his misbehavior, loudly protesting the $25 fine, the judge (who looked remarkably like Judge Hoffman) sentenced him to 24 hours in county jail for contempt.  It was great fun to come across an episode of “Perry Mason” featuring a conviction for contempt issued by an irascible judge like Hoffman.

My final contacts with Judge Hoffman, 1970-1983

            After observing the trial twice, and each time feeling uncomfortable, I cut off my relationship with Judge Hoffman almost completely. I was working as a lawyer in Chicago, and I was embarrassed that the judge I had clerked for had become the subject of so much criticism.

            But when I decided to leave Chicago and move to California in August 1970, six months after the end of the trial, it seemed only right to phone the judge to tell him I was moving and to say goodbye.  And so I did.

            During our phone call, I didn’t mention the trial, but after an awkward silence, he did.  “I still don’t understand what happened,” he told me.  He sounded almost mystified.  Uncertain about what had happened.  Baffled by all of the criticism hurled at him, without understanding why–or perhaps, without wanting to understand why.

            Despite his many flaws, this admission by the judge led me to feel sorry for him. Looking back, I think that when he agreed to preside over this trial, he never contemplated what might actually happen.  He somewhat ingenuously found himself dealing with a group of hostile defendants who were intent, from the outset, on disrupting his previously well-ordered courtroom. 

            Thinking about his admission to me during that phone call has–50 years later–left me wondering:  What actually happened to him, outside the courtroom, during the trial?  Did he witness protests in the streets surrounding the courthouse?  Did his wife try to bolster him at the end of every day in court?  And what happened inside the courthouse?  Did any of his fellow judges come to his aid?  Did any of them offer him support or advice?  Did he welcome their advice, if it was offered? 

            I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I’ve never tried to find out, and I don’t plan to try now.  But I suspect that the judge was left out there by himself, trapped in his appalling situation, twisting in the wind.  His colleagues and his law clerks, probably grateful to have themselves been spared what happened to him, may have failed to give him the kind of support he needed to help him get through the whole awful mess.

            When I think about the two years I spent as Hoffman’s law clerk, I recall some uncomfortable and unhappy times, some of which I’ve set forth earlier in this series.  But I can also recall some truly pleasant times.  He treated his clerks and office staff to holiday lunches, as well as farewell lunches for a secretary or law clerk leaving his chambers, at the Empire Room in the Palmer House hotel and the posh Standard Club.  He would also give us year-end bonuses paid out of his own pocket.  And, as I noted earlier, while I worked for him, he always treated me and my co-clerks with respect.

            My life changed dramatically at the end of the summer of 1970.  I moved to California, met the man I fell in love with and married, and did not return to Chicago with my husband and delightful one-year-old until 1975.  Instead of returning to working full time, I sought out part-time work in a variety of law-related jobs, and I only seldom ventured to downtown Chicago.

            But in 1980, my co-clerk Susan Getzendanner became the first woman judge on the Northern District of Illinois bench.  I was thrilled for her, and I was happy to congratulate her and wish her well.  My friendship with Susan led to two final contacts with Judge Hoffman.

            After Susan’s appointment, the judge cheerfully called me at home one day.  He told me he was about to speak about Susan at a celebratory gathering and asked whether I could tell him a funny story about her, gleaned from the year we worked together.  I came up with a silly story for him.  But before he hung up, he asked me when I would be returning to work as a lawyer.  I was busy with two young daughters, ages 6 and 3, and trying to stay viable in the legal profession by working at part-time law-related jobs.  When I told him I wasn’t sure when I would go back to working as a full-time lawyer, he emphatically responded something like this:  “Well, you should come back sometime soon.  We need good lawyers like you!”

            I replicated this dialogue in my mystery novel, Jealous Mistress, which I began writing in 1985 and finally published in 2011.  Alison Ross, the protagonist (who loosely resembles me), gets a call from the judge she clerked for.  A reporter had called to ask him about his former clerk Alison, who had garnered local attention by solving a recent murder. The judge asks Alison, “When are you going to go back to the law?  You were a real crackerjack when you worked for me.”  Alison tells him that she’s been busy at home with her kids, but the judge insists, “We need more good lawyers like you.”  Thanks, Judge Hoffman, for inspiring the dialogue I later used in my novel.

            Susan Getzendanner also wangled an invitation for me to attend a high-profile luncheon held in honor of the judge, sponsored (at least in part) by his alma mater, Northwestern University Law School.  It took place at a snazzy private club on Michigan Avenue, the Tavern Club, where I ran into a bunch of lawyers and law professors I knew, as well as a few of Hoffman’s former law clerks.  There had been a huge student protest at the law school during the trial, and a plaque (noting his donation to fund a room at the school) had been torn off the wall outside the room.  Some faculty members had also expressed scathing criticism

            The judge was not surprisingly offended by what happened, and the rumor was that Hoffman had dropped NU from his will.  By sponsoring this lavish luncheon held in his honor, NU made a huge effort to get back in his good graces, but I later heard that the effort did not bear fruit and Hoffman died without leaving anything to NU law.  (I don’t know whether that’s in fact true.  When I later taught at NU Law, I never asked any other member of the faculty whether it was.)

            During the luncheon, the judge smilingly walked over to me.  He seemed terribly pleased to see me and greeted me by kissing me on the lips. This was somewhat startling, but I forgave his brashness.  Probably because he was about 85 at the time.

            After the NU luncheon, I lost touch with the judge once again.  I sadly learned of his death in an unexpected way.  My family was traveling to the East Coast that summer.  My husband, whom I’ll call Marv, was a celebrated mathematician, and he was invited to speak at a math conference held at Yale.  The four of us memorably stayed in a stifling dormitory on the Old Campus. (We’d been assured that it was air-conditioned. They lied.) 

            After leaving New Haven, we drove to Cambridge, and Marv thought it would be fun to have lunch at his old Harvard College haunt, Elsie’s sandwich shop.

            As I perched on a stool at one of Elsie’s tables, I spied a copy of The New York Times left behind by another customer.  I picked it up and began leafing through it.  My heart stopped when I came across an article buried on an inside page:  a lengthy obituary for Judge Hoffman, who had died on July 1, 1983, while I was traveling.

            Was there a funeral?  If so, who attended?  I never looked into it, and I choose not to do so now.  But I hope there was some sort of memorial service that praised the many good things Hoffman did, instead of focusing on the notoriety he had earned as a result of the trial.

            As for me, I’ll be forever grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to begin my legal career as his law clerk.  The two years I spent as his clerk provided me with a solid foundation for my career.  I learned how the courts worked.  How lawyers did or did not craft persuasive arguments that could sway a court.  How judges did or did not conduct their courtrooms in a fair and unbiased fashion. And how litigants themselves could influence the outcome in a given case.

            In that benighted era, when most judges selected their clerks from among male law graduates and only male graduates, eschewing the opportunity to choose highly capable women, Judge Hoffman had the sense and good judgment to choose women like me.     

My life post-Hoffman (in brief) 

            When I finished my clerkship in the summer of 1969, I chose not to enter the private practice of law.  Instead, I applied for and won a fellowship in a program that helped lawyers learn how to represent poor people and placed them in programs where they could use those skills (the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program}. 

            I became a “Reggie” with the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau, where I was soon immersed in a lawsuit, Doe v. Scott.  My co-counsel and I filed this lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law, on February 20, 1970.  In August 1970, at the end of my first year as a Reggie, I transferred my fellowship to a program at UCLA Law School that focused on legal issues related to health problems of the poor.  During my year there, I continued to work on Doe v. Scott.  (I plan to write much more about my involvement in this lawsuit.  I hope to finish in the next year or two.) 

            Six weeks after moving to Westwood to work at UCLA, I met Marv, and my life changed again.  I’ll say more about that in my next blog post, “Another Love Story.”

Postscript

            Would Judge Hoffman be viewed differently today?  Should he be?  I titled this series “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” implying that he could be described as a “hanging judge.”  But in retrospect, I now think he was a much more complex human being than I used to think, and this implication is probably unfair.

            During the five decades since Judge Hoffman presided over the trial of the “Chicago 7,” we’ve witnessed the rise of sharp-tongued “Judge Judy,” who has starred on one of the hottest shows on daytime television, winning high ratings in 25 seasons from 1996 to 2021.  The title of her 1996 book gives us a clue to her judicial demeanor:  “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.”  Her great success might lead one to assume that the American public now admires an acerbic judge (who has also been called abrasive, discourteous, and insulting) and prefers her to one who displays what’s usually called “judicial temperament.” 

            What can we say about the public’s fascination with an acerbic judge like Judge Judy?  Does that fascination lead us to view a judge like Hoffman differently today? 

            I don’t think the public views these two judges in the same way.  One was (at least until the trial of the “Chicago 7”) a generally respected federal judge who presided over a great many important cases in his courtroom.  The other is a judge who is closer to a comedian than a respected jurist. 

            As a member of the legal profession, I think that “Judge Julius”—often lacking in fairness and judicial temperament–was not the kind of judge we need.  He wasn’t the villain the Sorkin film makes him out to be.  But he could have, consistently, throughout his tenure as a judge, been less abrasive and less biased in favor of the government.

            Although “Judge Judy” may be an amusing figure in the world of entertainment, she’s also not the kind of judge we need. 

           In short, lawyers and litigants in the real world, confronting serious legal issues, deserve serious judges who invariably display judicial temperament and avoid, as much as they possibly can, acting in an abrasive and biased way.