Hoffman attended Lewis Institute and Northwestern University before being admitted to the bar in 1915. He worked as an associate and partner of the firm White and Hawxhurst until 1936, when he became general counsel for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, where he remained until 1944 when he joined the law firm of Markheim, Hoffman, Hungerford & Sollo.
In 1947, he was elected judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. When his term expired, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Hoffman to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. Over the course of his career as a judge, Hoffman presided over numerous important cases, including a tax evasion case against Tony Accardo, an obscenity case against Lenny Bruce, a deportation suit against falsely accused Nazi war criminal Frank Walus, and several desegregation suits.
His most famous case, however, was the trial from April 9, 1969 to February 20, 1970 that involved charges against protesters arrested during the 1968 Democratic Convention, originally known as the "Chicago Eight". During the course of the Chicago Eight trial, Hoffman refused to allow defendant Bobby Seale to represent himself after Seale's original attorney became ill. This prompted conflicts with Seale that led to Hoffman ordering Seale to be gagged and shackled in the courtroom and eventually jailed for contempt. Finally Hoffman removed Seale from the trial, leaving the case with only seven defendants, at which point the trial became known as the "Chicago Seven" trial. Judge Hoffman became the favorite courtroom target of the Chicago Seven defendants, who often openly insulted the judge. Abbie Hoffman (no relation) told Judge Hoffman "you are a 'shande fur de Goyim'" ["disgrace in front of the Gentiles"]. You would have served Hitler better." He later added that "your idea of justice is the only obscenity in the room." Both Davis and Rubin told the Judge "this court is bullshit."
All seven were found by a jury to be not guilty of conspiracy, but five of the defendants were found guilty of inciting a riot, and Judge Hoffman sentenced each of the five to the maximum penalty: five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, plus court costs. In addition, Hoffman sentenced all eight defendants and both of their lawyers (William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass) to lengthy jail terms for contempt of court.
On May 11, 1972, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated all of the contempt convictions, and on November 21, 1972 reversed all of the substantive convictions on a number of grounds. Among other things, the appeals court found that Judge Hoffman had not sufficiently measured the biases of the jury and that he had exhibited a "deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense."
In 1974, author Joseph Goulden wrote a book called The Benchwarmers, which was an expose of the powerful and often private world of federal judges. Goulden conducted an in-depth investigation of Judge Hoffman and pointed out that he had an abrasive reputation among Chicago lawyers even before his most famous case. Goulden mentioned a survey that had been done among Chicago attorneys who had recently appeared before the judge and 78% had an unfavorable opinion of him. They responded overwhelmingly negatively to the questions "Does he display an impartial attitude?" and "is he courteous to both the prosecution and defense?"
In 1982, the Executive Committee of the U.S. District Court ordered that Hoffman not be assigned any new cases because of his age and complaints that he was acting erratically and abusively from the bench. However, he continued to preside over his ongoing cases until his death from natural causes the next year, a week before his 88th birthday.
In popular culture
- John Prine's song "Illegal Smile" describes escaping the reality of a bad day, but ending up in court. "And the judge's name was Hoffman."
- Judge Julius Hoffman Archived 2010-12-11 at the Wayback Machine.
- Chicago trial
- J. Anthony Lukas (1970-02-06). "Judge Hoffman Is Taunted at Trial of the Chicago 7 After Silencing Defense Counsel". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-07.
- Chicago 7 chronology, umkc.edu; accessed April 30, 2018.
- The Benchwarmers, Ballantine Books (January 12, 1976), ISBN 034524852X/ISBN 978-0345248527
- Chicago conspiracy trial, richsamuels.com; accessed April 30, 2018.
| Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
Richard Wellington McLaren