U.S. District Judge Sam Conti, who spent nearly 45 years on the federal bench, and presiding over a wealth of historic trials, died Wednesday at the age of 96.
During his 48 years as a judge, first on the superior court and then on the federal bench in San Francisco, he had a hand in cases that included people and issues emblematic of their times.
Fresh from law school and working for famed criminal defense lawyer Jake Ehrlich, Conti helped defend blues singer Billy Holiday. Decades later he presided over a copyright fight between 1960s rock star John Fogerty of Creedance Clearwater Revival, allowing Fogerty to play guitar for jurors during testimony.
In 1976, he sentenced Sara Jane Moore for her attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco.
Perhaps his best-known criminal trial came in 1979, and one that altered his family’s lives for years. He presided over the racketeering trial of 32 Hells Angels Motorcycle Club members. He ordered bleacher-style risers to accommodate 19 Hells Angels and their lawyers in the first trial phase as well as installing a plexi-glass partition separating trial participants from the public. Then he gladly allowed a rumor to circulate that it was bullet-proof glass. It wasn’t.
During the trial he received repeated death threats and endured five years of around-the-clock protection from U.S. Marshals for himself, his wife, his children and even his mother. His daughter even attended college using an alias.
Conti spent 30 years overseeing a single antitrust case over the price of oil on the South Pacific Island of American Samoa and fashioned a means of preventing price manipulation.
In 1981, he oversaw a claim that the government conducted a secret germ warfare experiment in 1950, spraying bacteria over San Francisco and allegedly causing the death of Edward Nevin. His survivors sued for $11 million when it was discovered but ultimately Conti ruled for the government.
Conti was nominated to the bench by President Richard Nixon and was confirmed following a Judiciary Committee hearing that included only a single question.
He had a reputation as a staunch conservative. He endured criticism from the public and even some judicial colleagues behind the scenes for his practice of handing down long prison sentences to Vietnam War draft resisters.
Conti said during an interview prior to his retirement, “I’ve been working since I was 10-years-old. I never felt I worked a day in my life. I enjoyed everything I ever did, especially work on the federal court. I enjoyed the good lawyers. I enjoyed the bad lawyers. I enjoyed the good cases and I enjoyed the bad cases.”
“I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve enjoyed my colleagues. But one thing I’ll tell you. I came here as a conservative and when I’m leaving, I’m leaving as a conservative.”
He continued to hear cases right up until he retired at 93.