Soon after being seated on the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, then-District Judge Samuel Conti remembers pausing for a few moments before an large and ornately framed painting displayed in his courthouse. It was a portrait of Judge Ogden Hoffman, Jr., the first federal district judge in California, who was appointed in 1851 and served until his death in 1891.
“I remember thinking that 40 years was a very long time,” the now-Senior District Judge Conti recalled. “And then I said to myself, ‘I’m going to beat you.’ ”
Judge Conti has done just that. Appointed in 1970 by President Nixon, he marked his 45th year of service in October. Now 93, he is retiring as the longest serving judge in the history of the Northern District of California.
“I enjoyed every minute of it. It never seemed like work to me, no matter how hard the case,” Judge Conti said.
Judge Conti leaves the federal bench after a colorful career that saw him preside over numerous high-profile cases. Those included a nine-month trial in 1979 of members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club accused of racketeering. After threats were made against them, the judge and his family were guarded continuously by U.S. marshals during and for some after the trial. While he praises the marshals for their service, it’s an experience he would not want to repeat.
“It’s a miserable existence. I feel sorry for anyone who has to have security the way we did,” he said.
Judge Conti speaks with some pride about a case in which he wrote an 80-plus-page opinion documenting problems with the Veterans Administration. In the end, he concluded that he did not have jurisdiction to take corrective action. He hoped his decision would be reversed on appeal. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did reverse, but the case later went to en banc review and the decision was upheld by an 11-judge court.
“It’s the only time I have ever regretted being affirmed,” Judge Conti mused, adding that he later received an award from a veterans group for his ruling.
A Los Angeles native, Judge Conti was an Army veteran of World War II. He earned his B.A. from the University of Santa Clara (now Santa Clara University) in 1945, and his LL.B. from Stanford Law School in 1948. He was in private practice in San Francisco, from 1946 to 1967, and served on the Contra Costa County (California) Superior Court from 1968 until his appointment to the federal bench.
Colleagues recognized the achievement with a plaque presented to Judge Conti at a special court session. The plaque, which has pictures of Judge Conti when he came on the court and as he is leaving it, hangs on a wall in the judges’ robing room. It has its own space, set apart from other photos, and will remain so until someone sets a new record of service to the court.