A remarkable era closed in the federal court in northern California this week. The last Republican-appointed federal judge on the San Francisco bench, left this week after 45 years on the court.
Conti is 93 and has served since his appointment by President Richard Nixon in 1970.
Among all 23 judges in the district’s San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose offices, only three Republican appointees remain, U.S. District Judges Saundra Armstrong and Ronald Whyte, both appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991; and Jeffrey White, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002. Armstrong and White sit in Oakland and Whyte in San Jose.
Conti is the longest serving judge on the Northern District bench, surpassing the court’s first Judge, Ogden Hoffman, who served 40 years, from 1851 to 1891.
Before joining the bench, Conti spent 18 years in private practice handling criminal defense but with a wide-ranging civil practice as well. He worked for famed defense lawyer Jake Ehrlich, whose real-life murder defenses formed the basis for the popular Perry Mason TV series.
Conti sentenced Sara Jane Moore, the would-be assassin of President Gerald Ford. He faced public criticism and critics among his own colleagues when he imposed prison terms on Vietnam War draft resisters at a time when it was unpopular.
He faced death threats and years of U.S. Marshal protection for himself and his family after taking on a racketeering trial of 19 Hells Angels in 1979.
He issued the largest civil damage award, $21 million, in a human rights case over claims of torture against former Argentine General Carlos Suarez-Mason. Suarez-Mason was accused of atrocities during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War of the 1970s.
The judge also allowed rock star John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival to play guitar and sing on the witness stand during a copyright fight between Fogerty and the music company that owned rights to some of his songs.
Conti also presided over the wrongful death case that exposed the government’s germ warfare experimentation over U.S. cities in the 1950s.
He ordered the U.S. Forestry Service in the 1980s to hire and promote women into traditionally male-dominated jobs.
In recent years, he criticized the Veterans Administration for its failure to timely address the health needs and shockingly high suicide rates among returning Gulf War veterans.
On Tuesday, the court held a send-off for Conti that included state and federal judges and appellate judges, as well as nearly three dozen of his former law clerks.
Attendees included former FBI Director Robert Mueller attended. Mueller served as U.S. Attorney in the Northern District prior to his 2001 appointment to head the FBI.
Conti drew the biggest laugh when he suggested he may be the only person in California that doesn’t approve of marijuana.
He recounted his most rewarding case came not on the federal bench but while he served as a juvenile court judge in Contra Costa County.
He had ordered a young man who had smoked marijuana to serve several days in juvenile hall to impress on him the need for a good education and to avoid drugs. Years later, a potential federal juror in a courtroom down the hall from Conti’s courtroom, was asked if she knew anyone in law enforcement.
“Yes, I know Judge Conti,” she said. “Years ago, he sentenced my son to juvenile hall and last year he graduated from Stanford University with a degree in engineering.”
In the end, attorney William Edlund cited the closing lines from Conti’s forthcoming oral history: “I came here as a federal judge as a conservative and when I’m leaving I’m leaving as a conservative.
Photo: The Recorder