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How Bad Was The Trial of the Chicago 7’s Judge Julius Hoffman, Really?

Frank Langella’s pro-prosecution jurist. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

“You are a shande far die goyim” — an embarrassment to the Jews — said political activist Abbie Hoffman in Yiddish to Judge Julius Hoffman, the man presiding over his infamous trial. Aaron Sorkin’s new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, is based on this true story of a disparate group of antiwar protest organizers, including Abbie Hoffman, who were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot, among other things, after peaceful demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic National Convention turned into brutal clashes with the Chicago police and the National Guard.

Originally known as the Chicago Eight, Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) and his co-defendants — Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Dan Flaherty) — landed in the courtroom of the unforgiving 74-year-old federal judge (Frank Langella) after President Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), declined to prosecute them. Nixon was president by then and, prompted by his attorney general, John Mitchell, the U.S. Attorneys Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. Mackenzie) ended up prosecuting the case. With the exception of Seale (whose lawyer had been hospitalized), the men were represented by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman).

Appointed to the federal bench by President Eisenhower in 1953, Judge Hoffman would forever mark his judicial record with his obvious antipathy toward the Chicago defendants and their counsel. Up until that point, his most newsworthy cases had been the 1960 trial of alleged Chicago mob boss Tony Accardo, who was charged with tax evasion; a 1966 fraud case involving a supposed cancer miracle cure; and a 1968 case in which Hoffman handed down Illinois’s first federal-court school-desegregation order. Diminutive and a dapper dresser, Hoffman showed his bias from the start of the protesters’ trial. He held four defense lawyers (who had withdrawn from the case before it even started) in contempt and jailed two of them. And he ignored all but one of Kunstler and Weinglass’s list of proposed questions for potential jurors that might have illuminated their cultural leanings. (An appeals court later cited this decision as one of the grounds for reversing the convictions.)

Not that the defendants — who called Hoffman “Mr. Magoo” — didn’t do their best to antagonize the pro-prosecution jurist. Abbie Hoffman called him Julie and started things off by blowing a kiss to the jury, which the judge promptly demanded the members “disregard.” As in the film, Judge Hoffman made clear that he and Abbie weren’t related, and the court jester cried out, “Father, no!” But the activists’ antics in the film pale in comparison to reality. Yes, Abbie and Rubin did wear judicial robes one day, taking them off and stomping on them. They also brought in a birthday cake, which they tried to distribute. In fact, during the five-month-long trial, the defendants spent hours at the defense table eating jelly beans, making faces and editorial comments, telling jokes, reading newspapers, and sleeping. “The area around the defense table was littered with clothing, candy wrappers, and even (on one day) a package of marijuana,” according to one account.

The men’s behavior was surely influenced by Judge Hoffman, who consistently ruled in favor of the prosecution throughout the trial, more often than not allowing evidence that helped the government and denying evidence that might have aided the defense. As in the film, Hoffman refused to let Clark testify in front of the jury about his decision not to prosecute the case. He also denied a defense request to subpoena President Johnson. But he did permit Chicago mayor Richard Daley, a noted hippie opponent, to take the stand, then denied the defense’s request to treat him as a hostile witness and severely limited the politician’s testimony. Meanwhile, Judge Hoffman referred to Weinglass as a “wild man” and, as in the film, mispronounced Dellinger’s name as “Dillinger” (a reference to the notorious gangster John Dillinger). He revoked the longtime pacifist’s bail after he shouted “a barnyard vulgarity” at a prosecution witness. That same day, Rubin told Judge Hoffman he was “synonymous with Adolf Hitler.”

By far the justice’s most heinous decree was to order that Seale be bound and gagged by marshals when the exasperated Black Panther called the judge a “pig” and a “fascist” after Seale’s repeated requests to represent himself and cross-examine witnesses were denied. Hoffman subsequently sentenced Seale to four years in prison for contempt of court and declared a mistrial in his case. (The contempt charges were overturned on appeal, and Seale’s conspiracy charges were eventually dropped.) From then on, the Chicago Seven and even their Who’s Who of defense witnesses — including Allen Ginsberg, Dick Gregory, Norman Mailer, Arlo Guthrie, and Judy Collins — couldn’t testify without the judge interjecting. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also forbade the singers from performing their songs on the stand.)

But contrary to the film, Judge Hoffman saved all of his contempt charges for after the jury went to deliberate. He issued 159 citations to the defendants and their lawyers for everything from not rising for him and using profanity to questioning the integrity of the court. He sentenced both Kunstler and Weinglass to lengthy jail terms, and curiously, he gave Abbie Hoffman a shorter sentence for his sarcastic comments and insults than he did to Hayden for questioning procedure. (The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals would later reverse most of the contempt citations.)

The jury eventually acquitted the defendants of conspiracy but found five of them (all but Weiner and Froines) guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Judge Hoffman dispensed the maximum five-year prison sentence, plus $5,000 in fines. The Seventh Circuit reversed all of the convictions in 1972, ruling that the judge’s “deprecatory and often antagonistic attitude toward the defense is evident in the record from the very beginning. It appears in remarks and actions both in the presence and absence of the jury.”

Judge Hoffman went on to preside over many more trials, including the 1974 case of the alleged Nazi collaborator Frank Walus, a retired autoworker and Polish immigrant accused by famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. (Walus’s conviction was overturned, and the government never retried him.) In his last year on the bench, lawyers accused Hoffman of being inconsistent and abusive. When he refused to retire, he was effectively sidelined by an executive committee and received no new cases.

Until the end, Judge Hoffman was unrepentant about his behavior during the Chicago Seven trial. “I just did what I perceived to be the right thing,” he said a year before this death in 1983 at age 87. “I did nothing in the trial that I’m not proud of. I presided with dignity. When I felt I had to be firm, I was firm.” Upon Hoffman’s death, Kunstler remembered the judge as a “sad figure” who had been badly used by the federal government. But Kunstler also noted that he was “kind of a worthy opponent when I wasn’t hating him.”

How Bad Was The Trial of the Chicago 7’s Judge Hoffman?