'The Trial of the Chicago 7': Who was Julius Hoffman? The late judge was despised by defense teams for his bias
Judge Hoffman had an abrasive reputation among Chicago lawyers even before the Chicago Seven trial, and 78 percent of Chicago attorneys had an unfavorable opinion of him
One of the most striking people in Aaron Sorkin's latest political drama out on Netflix, 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is Judge Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella). Judge Hoffman's clearly biased behavior against the defendants would have shocked many, but what might shock them more is that all of what is depicted in the film is true.
The Chicago conspiracy trial of 1969 was one of the most heated courtroom trials in America's judicial history, not least because the eight defendants were the first ones to be charged under the Rap Brown Law, traveling between state lines with the intent to incite a riot. The Chicago 7 trial came at the peak of anti-war and civil rights protests in the United States during the late 1960s. It was a time when these protests were viewed as a war on traditional American culture, with young people breaking away and distrust in the government was growing. The initial eight defendants included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner.
As depicted in the film, Judge Julius Hoffman was openly antagonistic towards the defendants and the defense team of attorneys, citing over 200 occurrences of contempt of the court during the trial. By the end of the trial, nearly everyone in the defense team was sentenced due to the charges of contempt of court. The Chicago Seven trial was not the only high profile case for Judge Hoffman, but it is the one that is most remembered when it comes to 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.
During what was earlier the Chicago Eight trial, Judge Hoffman did, in fact, have Seale bound and gagged after Seale repeatedly interrupted courtroom proceedings. However, Seale had good reason to -- Judge Hoffman did not delay the trial to allow Seale's lawyer to recover from surgery and proceeded with the trial with no adequate legal representation for Seale. When Seale insisted on representing himself, Judge Hoffman was again opposed to the idea and would not let Seale cross-examine witnesses on behalf of himself.
Judge Hoffman's attitude was criticized by the Court of Appeals and was derided for his "deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense". He was criticized for his remarks on the defense in the presence of the jury, often implying that the defense team was "inept, bumptious, or untrustworthy". Judge Hoffman also communicated privately with jurors during the deliberations without alerting the defense, and when four jurors initially refused to convict the defendants, he informed them that he would not accept any other conclusion except one in which the jury decided that the defendants were guilty.
In 1974, a book by author Joseph Goulden called 'The Benchwarmers' delved into the world of federal judges. Through an in-depth investigation, the book revealed that Judge Hoffman had an abrasive reputation among Chicago lawyers even before the Chicago Seven trial, and 78 percent of Chicago attorneys had an unfavorable opinion of him. Most believed that he was not impartial and was not courteous to both the prosecution and defense teams. Judge Hoffman's apparent superiority complex persisted until the end of his career. In 1982, the Executive Committee of the United States 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. He died a year later.
'The Trial of the Chicago 7' is now streaming on Netflix.