Senior Judge Samuel Conti, the Northern District's Longest-Serving Judge, Retires

Senior Judge Samuel Conti has retired from the bench as of the end of October 2015. Judge Conti holds many distinctions, including that of being the longest-serving judge in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In March 2011, he surpassed the tenure of the District’s very first judge, Ogden Hoffman, who served the San Francisco-based court for four decades from 1851 to 1891. Judge Conti has now served for 45 years in all, including an extraordinary 28 years as a senior district judge.

Senior District Judge
 Samuel Conti

Born in Los Angeles on July 16, 1922, Judge Conti graduated from high school in Santa Cruz and then served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After attaining his undergraduate degree from University of Santa Clara in 1945, he went on to attend law school at Stanford University, passing the bar in 1948.

For almost twenty years, Judge Conti worked in private practice in the Bay Area, first with J.W. “Jake” Ehrlich and later as partner in the firm Coll & Conti. From 1960 to 1967 he also served as Assistant City Attorney and then City Attorney for Concord. In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan appointed Judge Conti to the Superior Court for Contra Costa County, where he eventually presided over the Juvenile Court of Martinez until his move to the federal judiciary.

In 1970, President Nixon appointed Judge Conti to a newly-created seat on the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. His lightning-fast confirmation process, unimaginable today, took less than 10 days from appointment on October 7 to receipt of his commission as a federal judge on October 16. He served in the San Francisco Courthouse as an active Article III judge until he assumed senior status on November 1, 1987. Fern M. Smith was next appointed to his seat, followed by current Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton. 

Judge Conti was well-known for his firm judicial stance during an era of social upheaval, as well as for unflagging expectations of efficiency and professionalism in court proceedings. Judge Conti has overseen numerous high-profile criminal cases during his career, including the trials of Vietnam War draft evaders, Sara Jane Moore (would-be assassin of President Ford), and members of the Hells Angels on racketeering charges. In civil matters Judge Conti has also drawn national attention. Judge Conti tirelessly enforced rulings against the U.S. Forest Service for its failure to improve the hiring and retention of women and minority employees, and also against the U.S. Department of Energy for its failure to clean up nuclear contamination at Boeing’s Rocketdyne site. More recently, Judge Conti handled a high-profile case in which veterans challenged the mental health care provided by the U.S. Veterans Administration and he is currently presiding over a complex multi-district antitrust litigation matter involving cathode rays tubes, a class action alleging a product defect in a Hyundai car model and several other high-profile cases. 

Judge Conti has a well-deserved reputation for efficiency in the processing of cases. Judge Conti's policy is that motions should be adjudicated no later than the date set for hearing, and not taken under submission for decision later. Most civil motions have not included an opportunity for oral argument; rather, the attorneys come to court and receive an order ruling on the motion. Throughout his tenure, Judge Conti has generously shared his judicial skills with other districts, regularly traveling to other courts to handle backlogged cases including Hawaii, Arizona, and U.S. territories such as American Samoa. For many years while a senior judge, Judge Conti has made an annual trip to New York, where he has presided over back-to-back civil and criminal trials in the Southern District of New York over a period of several weeks.  

In contrast to his stern, no-nonsense judicial style in the courtroom, Judge Conti has fostered a warm and supportive atmosphere in his chambers in which legal issues are analyzed as part of a frank and collegial dialogue. Morrison & Foerster partner and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Freccero, who clerked for Judge Conti in 1987-88, describes Judge Conti as a profoundly important influence on his career both during and after the clerkship year. "One of the great joys as a lawyer practicing in federal court has been going early to court or staying late to have time to visit Judge Conti," Freccero comments, noting Judge Conti's generosity with his time and his unflagging interest in former law clerks' careers and families. U.S. District Court Staff Attorney Michael W. Deibert, who clerked for Judge Conti in 2005-06, commends Judge Conti for treating his staff with enormous respect, noting: "He patiently listened to my ideas about a case, even though he had thought through these same issues many times well before I was born. This earnest and gentle attention worked wonders. He believed that if you had a happy staff, good work necessarily followed." Judge Conti has mentored a total of 83 law clerks over the course of his career, many of whom have gone on to very distinguished careers in law. Judge Conti has thus done much to shape the bar of Northern California through his role as mentor to generations of young lawyers. 

Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton observes: "Few judges in the history of the United States Courts can match Judge Conti for the breadth and depth of his contribution to the fair and efficient administration of justice. He has set the bar high for all those who follow him and he will be revered and emulated by judges for decades to come. Speaking for all of his colleagues on this court, I can say that his retirement is a momentous transition. We thank him for his long and distinguished service to the federal courts in general and the Northern District in particular. He will be greatly missed."