SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After serving 45 years as a federal judge and presiding over some of the most significant cases in the Bay Area, U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti says he will hang up his robe for good at the end of this month.
Speaking from his chambers on the 17th floor of the San Francisco federal building, the 93-year-old judge recalled some of the most challenging and rewarding cases he handled over his 45-year tenure.
One of the most high-profile cases Conti presided over was a 9-month racketeering trial involving the Hells Angels motorcycle club in 1979 and 1980 – a case that required the government to assign U.S. marshals to protect him and his family due to death threats.
“I’ve received threats all throughout my career,” Conti said, adding that his reputation as a tough-on-crime judge and the fact that he’s put many convicts behind bars has earned him more than a few impassioned enemies.
Conti also oversaw the criminal trial of former Manson family member Lynette Fromme, who attempted to assassinate then-President Gerald Ford in 1975.
Another highlight of Conti’s judicial career came when Credence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty played his guitar in the courtroom to explain his songwriting process during a copyright trial.
“This is the best job in the world,” Conti said. “Each case was separate and distinct. All of them were different.”
Conti, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Richard Nixon in 1970, said that when he retires there will be no Republican judges in the Northern District of California.
“I came here as a conservative, and I’m leaving as a conservative,” Conti said, adding he does not believe a judge’s political philosophy should affect how one rules on matters of law.
Before his appointment to the federal bench, Conti worked in private practice in San Francisco for 19 years, nine years as city attorney of Concord in the east bay, and served two years as a superior court judge in Contra Costa County.
One decision Conti made that he wishes had been overturned was his ruling in lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, over claims the agency failed to provide adequate mental healthcare for veterans.
Although Conti felt the agency needed a serious overhaul to its mental health services, he found that only the president or Congress could make such changes. The Ninth Circuit initially overturned his ruling, he said, but then upheld it in an en banc rehearing.
When it comes to criminal matters, Conti said he disagrees with the federal sentencing guidelines’ “point system,” and feels judges should have more discretion in how they apply criminal sentences.
Conti said although he often doled out harsh sentences, he also tried to make certain offenders only served a small portion of those sentences with much longer probation periods – giving them a chance to stay out of trouble and keep themselves out of prison by practicing good behavior.
“I have a reputation as a hard sentencer,” Conti said. “When I would come to other jurisdictions they used to say, “‘Slamming Sam’ is coming to town.”
When determining a convicted person’s sentence, Conti said he looks at several factors including a person’s criminal history, childhood environment and background.
The judge also abhors mandatory minimum sentences, pointing to times when he had to sentence low-level offenders that transported drugs to long prison terms because of the law.
“Any judge worth his salt could figure out what the proper sentence is,” Conti said.
When asked if he has any advice for new judges, Conti recommended studying up on the court rules to make sure they have a better understanding of the rules than the attorneys before them. Conti also stressed the importance of always treating jurors with respect.
“Be courteous and considerate to juries because they’re taking the time away from their jobs and lives to serve,” Conti said. “The system is only as good as the jurors.”
The one thing he will miss most about the job is presiding over trials, because “that’s where all the action is,” he said.
In his retirement, Conti said he plans to read Harvard classics instead of law books, and travel with his family.
Though he says he could have retired 15 years ago and received virtually the same pay, Conti said he stayed on as a senior judge because he simply loves what he does.
“I stayed on because I love the job,” he said. “Confucius said if you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I like dealing with people and solving their problems.”
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