Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman

POST #8

This is the eighth in a series of posts that recall what it was like to serve as Judge Julius Hoffman’s law clerk from 1967 to 1969.

The “Chicago 7” Trial (continued)

            How did the Nixon victory lead to the trial of the “Chicago 7”?  The answer is simple.

             With prosecutions by the U.S. Justice Department shifting from the Johnson administration and its attorney general, Ramsey Clark, to those on Nixon’s team who began running the Justice Department, things changed dramatically. 

            AG Clark had been reluctant to go after antiwar activists.  But Nixon was a warped personality, bent on punishing those he viewed as his enemies.  Once in office, with his own attorney general, John Mitchell, securely installed, he could prod federal prosecutors to go after his perceived foes.

            With the assistance of the FBI, long under the direction of another warped individual, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon was able to track down his enemies, including antiwar protestors who had militated against him.  At the Democratic convention in Chicago in August 1968, antiwar activists’ outspoken opposition to the ultimately successful nomination of Hubert Humphrey (who in their view had not supported their cause with sufficient enthusiasm) disrupted the convention and undermined Humphrey’s ability to defeat Nixon.  As I noted in Post #7, Humphrey’s popular vote total in November was only one percent short of Nixon’s.  But that one percent made all the difference in the now-notoriously-undemocratic Electoral College.

            Many of these protestors had opposed the Vietnam War even before 1968, and they promised to further disrupt things once Nixon was elected.  Hoover’s FBI moved on from targeting people like members of the Communist Party USA to antiwar activists.  A covert program, Cointelpro, used a wide range of “dirty tricks,” including illegal wiretaps and planting false documents. 

I’ll add a recent update on Cointelpro here.

A fascinating revelation appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2021

            On March 7 of this year, The San Francisco Chronicle revealed an FBI break-in that underscores what the agency was doing at this time.  On March 8, 1971, Ralph Daniel, then 26, was one of eight antiwar activists who had long suspected FBI malfeasance and broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania to seize records that would prove it.  (March 8 was chosen because, they hoped, FBI agents would be focused on the title fight between prizefighters Ali and Frazier that night.) The break-in was successful, and the records uncovered were leaked to journalists and others, exposing Hoover’s secret FBI program that investigated and spied on citizens accused of engaging in protected speech. 

            This was the massive Cointelpro operation that had amassed files on antiwar activists, students, Black Panthers, and other Black citizens.  Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, was one target of this operation. (He plays a small role in Aaron Sorkin’s film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” before his shocking murder is revealed during that trial.  I remember learning of Hampton’s murder and feeling sickened by the conduct of local law enforcement, whose homicidal wrongdoing later became apparent.)

            In 1975, the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee found the FBI program illegal and contrary to the Constitution.      Exposure of Cointelpro tarnished Hoover’s legacy and damaged the reputation of the FBI for years.

            The recent revelation appears in the March 7th edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.  Ralph Daniel, a resident of the Bay Area, revealed his story to a Chronicle reporter fifty years after the break-in took place.

The legal underpinnings of the trial of the “Chicago 7”

            With John Mitchell running Nixon’s Justice Department, federal prosecutors were instructed to focus on one section in a federal statute originally intended to penalize those who created civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and specifically to use that statute to bring charges against antiwar activists.  The statute, which had been enacted on April 11, 1968, was mostly a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it applied to issues like fair housing and the civil rights of Native American tribes. 

            But Title X of this law, which became known as the Anti-Riot Act, did something quite different.  It made it a felony to cross states lines or make phone calls “to incite a riot; to organize, promote or participate in a riot; or to aid and abet any person performing these activities.” This provision, sometimes called the “H. Rap Brown Law,” was passed in response to the conduct of civil rights activist H. Rap Brown.  

How did Judge Hoffman become involved?

            In September 1968, shortly after the Chicago convention, the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois, William J. Campbell, convened a grand jury to investigate possible charges against antiwar protestors who had been active during the convention.  The grand jury, which met 30 times over six months and heard about 300 witnesses, indicted the eight antiwar protestors who came to be dubbed the “Chicago 8” with a violation of the Anti-Riot Act.  AG John Mitchell then asked the U.S Attorney for the Northern District, Thomas Foran, to stay in office and direct the prosecution.

            In Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware that any of this was happening.  But in the spring of 1969, Hoffman became the judge who would preside over the prosecution.

            Anyone could see from the very beginning that this case was a hot potato–such a hot potato that before it was assigned to Hoffman, it had bounced around the courthouse a couple of times.  Cases were supposed to be randomly assigned to judges according to a “wheel” in the clerk’s office.  But this time, the first two judges who’d been handed the case had reportedly sent it back.  One of these judges was Chief Judge Campbell.  I’m not sure about the other judge, but whoever he was, he had a lot more smarts than Hoffman did.

            [I had my own run-in with Judge Campbell, beginning in February 1970.  But that’s a story for another time.]

            When the case landed in Hoffman’s chambers, he seemed somewhat taken aback, but I think he may have been secretly pleased to be handed this case.  He might have even liked the idea that he’d be handling a high-profile prosecution that would draw a lot of attention.  In any event, his ego wouldn’t let him send the case back to “the wheel,” even on a pretext.

            I kept my distance from the “Chicago 8” case.  As Hoffman’s senior clerk, due to leave that summer, I wasn’t expected to do any work on it.  My co-clerk, at that time the junior clerk, would become the senior clerk after my departure, and he assumed responsibility for the pre-trial motions and other events related to the case.  I was frankly delighted to have little or no responsibility this case.  It was clearly dynamite, and Hoffman was clearly the wrong judge for it.

            Since I was still working in Hoffman’s chambers, I could of course observe what was happening there.  And I could see what was going to happen long before the trial began.  Attorneys for the eight defendants (who later became seven when defendant Bobby Seale’s case was severed, in a sadly shocking episode about a month after the trial began) immediately began filing pre-trial motions that contested absolutely everything. 

            As I recall, one pre-trial motion explicitly asked Hoffman to recuse himself (i.e., withdraw as judge).  The defense lawyers’ claim was that Hoffman’s conduct of previous trials showed that he couldn’t conduct this trial fairly.  If Hoffman had been smart, he would have seized upon this motion as a legitimate way to extract himself from the case.  He must have already suspected that things in his courtroom might not go well.  But again, his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit that there was anything in his history that precluded him from conducting a fair trial.

            Soon the national media began descending on the courtroom to report on Hoffman’s rulings on the pre-trial motions.  One day Hoffman came into the clerks’ room to show us a published article in which a reporter had described the judge as having a “craggy” face.  “What does ‘craggy’ mean?” he asked us. 

            My co-clerk and I were dumbfounded, wondering how to respond to such a bizarre question.  The word “craggy” had always sounded rather rugged to me, while Hoffman looked much more like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo (as many in the media soon began to describe him).  I muttered something about “looking rugged,” while my co-clerk stayed silent.  Hoffman looked dubious about my response and continued to harp on the possible definition of “craggy” for another five or ten minutes until he finally left.

            The problem with Hoffman’s treatment of the “Chicago 7′ case was, fundamentally, that he treated it like every other criminal case he’d ever handled.  And the defense attorneys were right.  He had a record of bias in favor of government prosecutors.

            This problem became his downfall.  He refused to see that this case was unique and had to be dealt with on its own terms, unlike all of the other criminal cases in his past. 

            Further, he lacked any flexibility and remained committed to the way he’d always conducted proceedings in his courtroom.  If he’d had some degree of flexibility, that might have helped the trial proceed more smoothly.  But at 74, after 16 years on the bench, he was accustomed to running an orderly courtroom with lawyers and defendants who followed the rules.

            He would not have an orderly courtroom this time, and he was completely unable to bend those rules.

The film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin

            This film, which first appeared in September 2020 (I’ll call it “the Sorkin film”), has made the trial the centerpiece of a lengthy and detailed dramatization of the trial itself, along with the events that led up to it. 

The film is an impressive achievement.  I applaud Sorkin for bringing attention to the 50-year-old trial and to many of the people and events who were part of it.

I’ve chosen not to critique the film but simply to add comments based on my own recollections from that era along with what I’ve gleaned from my independent research.

The Sorkin film has notably garnered a 90 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, based on nearly 300 critics’ reviews.  Some of the reviews are glowing, others less so.

I’ll quote from a sampling of reviews.

A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times:  The film is “talky and clumsy, alternating between self-importance and clowning.”

David Sims wrote in The Atlantic:  This is “a particularly shiny rendering of history, but Sorkin wisely [focuses] on America’s failings, even as he celebrates the people striving to fix them.”

Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal:  The film “diminishes its aura of authenticity with dubious inventions” and “muddies its impact by taking on more history than it can handle.”

Sorkin’s overall themes are opposition to an unjust war, specifically the Vietnam War; the attempt by activists in 1968 to achieve what they viewed as justice and to strengthen democracy; and how all of this played out politically.  As A.O. Scott noted in his review, “the accident of timing” helped to bolster these themes, with “echoes of 1968” clear to most of us in 2020:  “the appeals to law and order, the rumors of radicals sowing disorder in the streets, the clashes between police and citizens.” 

Sorkin himself told an interviewer that protestors in 2020 got “demonized as being un-American, Marxist, communist—all things they called the Chicago 7.”  He added, “The movie is not intended to be a history lesson, or about 1968—it’s about today.”

(As I point out later in “A Brief Detour,” these themes also played out in Greece during the 1960s.)

In his screenplay, Sorkin sets the scene well.  He begins with news coverage noting LBJ’s escalation of troops and draft calls to beef up the war in Vietnam.  He includes a clip of Martin Luther King Jr. stating that the war was poisoning the soul of America.  He also highlights the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who had spoken out against the war, while at the same time noting the increase in casualties among the troops in Vietnam.

In addition, Sorkin makes clear that two of the Chicago 7 defendants, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, were leaders of SDS, an organization maintaining that the Vietnam War was contrary to our notions of social justice.  He also shows us Abbie Hoffman (hereinafter Abbie, to avoid confusion with the judge) and Jerry Rubin–who wanted to see either Senator Eugene McCarthy or Senator George McGovern nominated for the presidency– proclaiming that there wasn’t enough difference between Humphrey and Nixon to merit a vote for Humphrey.  (Gosh, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  It reminds me of Ralph Nader in 2000, proclaiming that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Thanks, Ralph, for helping to defeat Al Gore and giving us George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.) 

One more thing:  Abbie and Rubin claim in a clip that they’re going to the convention in Chicago “peacefully,” but “we’ll meet violence with violence.”

The film has deservedly won over a large number of admiring movie-watchers, but let’s be honest: Many if not most of them have little or no knowledge of the real story portrayed in it.

Sorkin’s screenplay received the Golden Globe award as the best screenplay of 2020, and it’s been nominated for an Oscar in that category.  The film has also been nominated for an Oscar as the Best Motion Picture of 2020.  One of its actors, Sacha Baron Cohen, is nominated for best supporting actor, and the film is nominated in three other Oscar categories.  In April, the cast received the Screen Actors Guild award for the Outstanding Performance by a Motion Picture Cast.

A few of my own comments

            As I’ve previously pointed out, in the spring of 1969 I was serving as Hoffman’s senior clerk.  I wasn’t responsible for advising him on his rulings during the trial (which began after my departure that summer), and I also didn’t take part in his rulings before the trial.  But it was impossible not to observe what was happening in his chambers while I was still working there.

            Although I therefore could observe what went on in Hoffman’s chambers, I was unaware of many of the events that were taking place outside of his chambers, and I don’t recall whether I personally observed any of the pre-trial courtroom appearances of the defense attorneys.  I also never observed the conduct of any of the defendants before the trial began, unless they appeared on local TV news coverage.

            For these reasons, I found much of the Sorkin film illuminating.  Although I’d very much like to know the sources Sorkin relied on in crafting his screenplay, I haven’t attempted to find out exactly what they were.  For proceedings in the courtroom both before and during the trial, I’m sure that Sorkin relied on the court transcript, which would have recorded everything said in court by the prosecutors, the defendants, defense counsel, the judge, and the many witnesses. 

            [Because of my own experience with court reporters, I know that not every word said in court is in fact recorded properly.  When I said during an oral argument (in a case called Doe v. Scott) that there was “no consensus” among medical experts regarding when life begins, the court reporter recorded my response as “no consequences.”  A very different word with a very different meaning in that context.  But in the trial of the “Chicago 7,” it’s probably safe to assume that the court reporter got most of the words right.]

            As for anything said outside of court, I’ll assume that Sorkin chose to rely on reputable sources.  I know, for example, that defense attorney William Kunstler published a book titled “My Life as a Radical Lawyer,” which probably provided helpful background for some of what happened (at least from Kunstler’s viewpoint).  Countless other books, interviews, and media accounts were no doubt researched and used to support scenes in the film.  Kudos to Sorkin if he and his staff perused these books and other background material for insights into what happened.

            I nevertheless want to ask, on my behalf as well as yours:

            How accurate is the film?

            Although Sorkin may have done a thorough job of research, there’s no question that he took considerable “creative license” when he wrote his screenplay.  He chose to emphasize certain events and to de-emphasize, revise, or omit others.  He also created totally new stuff to dramatize the story.

             For a review of what’s accurate and what’s not, I recommend two online articles.  One that strikes me as a careful job that squares with what I remember is “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Trial of the Chicago 7” by Matthew Dessum, published on Oct. 15, 2020, in Slate.com.   A similar article appeared around the same time in smithsonianmag.com.

                                                To be continued