Walter Edward Hoffman
Federal district judge Walter Edward Hoffman "single-handedly cleared a legendary backlog" of cases in the late 1950s by "working around the clock and seven days a week." A firm believer that justice delayed is often justice denied, Hoffman created the "rocket docket" system to move cases through his courtroom more efficiently. Hoffman's workaholic spirit came to characterize his court—and years after his retirement, the Eastern District of Virginia was still one of the fastest and most efficient courts in the United States. (Studies conducted in the 1980s by the ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE U.S. COURTS showed that the Eastern District of Virginia consistently beat all other federal jurisdictions in elapsed time between the filing of litigants' papers and the start of a civil trial.) Owing in large part to the timesaving tactics developed by Hoffman, the Eastern District of Virginia, which stretches from Northern Virginia to the North Carolina line and includes Alexandria, Norfolk, and Richmond courts, in 1987 averaged only five months (compared with a national average of fourteen months) from the filing of a case to the start of its trial. The court also maintained one of the lowest reversal rates in the country.
Speed, efficiency, and the ability to juggle a wide variety of tasks simultaneously were lifelong character traits of the man who developed the rocket docket. He was born July 18, 1907, in Jersey City, New Jersey. After completing a bachelor of science degree in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1928, Hoffman attended the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, at the College of William and Mary. He later transferred to Washington and Lee University School of Law, where he received a bachelor of laws degree in 1931.
In 1931, he joined the Norfolk law firm of Rumble and Rumble and also began teaching law on a part-time basis at the College of William and Mary. In 1935, he and a colleague established the law firm of Breeden and Hoffman; their partnership thrived until Hoffman was appointed to the federal bench in 1954. While practicing law, Hoffman continued to teach—and he took an active role in the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association, serving as president in 1948. He also maintained memberships in the Virginia Bar Association and the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION, serving on numerous committees and taking leadership roles when called upon to do so. His committee work brought Hoffman to the attention of the national legal community, and before long, he was considered for a federal judgeship.
Hoffman was named U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Virginia on September 3, 1954. Soon after his appointment, the issue of SCHOOL DESEGREGATION came to his court. In 1958, he ordered the Norfolk School Board to admit seventeen black students to white secondary schools (School Board v. Beckett, 260 F.2d 18 ). The schools were immediately closed under state laws intended to thwart INTEGRATION, and Hoffman became the target of segregationist attacks from around the country. Despite public and private pressure to do otherwise, Hoffman held firm in his order and in his denial of a request by the school to delay admitting the seventeen students until the following year.
In the late 1950s, both the volume of cases on his docket and their volatile nature prompted Hoffman to explore ways of delivering more timely justice in his jurisdiction. He made a personal commitment to clear his own backlog of cases and to put future trials on a tighter schedule. His marathon court sessions to achieve this goal are now judicial legend. As he worked to clear his backlog, Hoffman began to develop courtroom procedures and a philosophy for speeding justice. He also began to seek out professional colleagues with similar concerns. To that end, he volunteered to serve on the U.S. Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules in 1960.
When Hoffman became chief judge in 1961, he put his theories into practice. On July 31 of that year, he wrote an open letter to attorneys in his jurisdiction: "[W]ith an excess of 750 civil and ADMIRALTY cases pending on the dockets … it is apparent that there must be a drastic change in procedure relating to the preparation of cases for trial." The next day, he issued a lengthy order that became the basis for the rocket docket system—an order that has sped up justice in Virginia ever since.
The foundation of Hoffman's system was setting firm trial dates and keeping them. Hearings and trials were scheduled early; and pretrial investigation was limited, as were the number of character and expert witnesses at trial. Stipulations were encouraged so that time would not be wasted proving facts that all parties agreed to accept. And Hoffman made it clear to all parties that delaying tactics would not be tolerated in his court. "We decided we didn't want to miss a single trial date," he recalled in 1987, "and we still don't."
Hoffman felt that delays are costly because "lawyers are less keen, witnesses are harder to locate, and every type of confusion and slip-up is more likely." Critics of Hoffman's approach
said that the pace of litigation in his court favored large law firms and businesses with access to vast legal resources, and that too often his system allowed little time to negotiate a settlement before trial. But the vast majority of litigators in Hoffman's jurisdiction praised his methods. In 1968, the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association presented him with its annual award, for his contributions to the advancement of justice in Virginia.
Although speedy justice was important to Hoffman, he also recognized that the quality of justice ultimately rested on the quality of judges and of judicial education. Perhaps for this reason, he joined the Board of Directors of the FEDERAL JUDICIAL CENTER in 1972, and served as director of the center from 1974 to 1977. As director, he was responsible for the development and delivery of seminars instructing new judges on both law and administrative issues. Hoffman took a central role in many of the seminars, drawing on his experience to lead discussions and alert attendees to the difficulties encountered, and errors made, by inexperienced judges.
Hoffman took senior (or semiretired) status in 1974. As a senior judge, he accepted assignments to district and circuit courts throughout the federal system. In his capacity as senior judge, he was involved in a number of high-profile cases, including the criminal prosecutions of former vice president Spiro T. Agnew for TAX EVASION, former U.S. district judge Harry E. Claiborne for tax evasion, former Charleston mayor Mike Roark for cocaine possession and OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE, and former West Virginia governor Arch A. Moore, Jr., for EXTORTION, MAIL FRAUD, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice.
Even at senior status, Hoffman often heard more cases than many of his younger colleagues. "He's regarded as one of the premier federal trial judges in the United States," said U.S. district judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr., at one of the many award ceremonies acknowledging Hoffman's lifelong contributions to the bench. In 1976, the American Judicature Society presented Hoffman with the Herbert Harley Award for aiding the effective administration of justice throughout the United States.
In 1977, the U.S. Judicial Conference passed a resolution commending Hoffman's past services to the judiciary, with special emphasis on his services as director of the Federal Judicial Center. Also in 1977, Hoffman began a fifteen-year tenure on the TEMPORARY EMERGENCY COURT OF APPEALS, and he returned to the College of William and Mary as a visiting professor. In 1982, the U.S. Senate voted to rename the federal courthouse in Norfolk in his honor. Hoffman responded by saying he doubted "that a single United States senator knew what he was voting for" that day.
In 1984, Hoffman became the second recipient of the Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, which is administered by the American Judicature Society. This award—named for Edward J. Devitt, former chief U.S. district judge for Minnesota—acknowledges the dedication and contributions to justice made by all federal judges, by recognizing the specific achievements of one judge who has contributed significantly to the profession. Hoffman was acknowledged for improving the quality of justice through efficient JUDICIAL ADMINISTRATION.
In his late eighties, Hoffman had slowed his pace, but he continued to hear some cases in the nation's federal courts. Hoffman died November 21, 1996, in Norfolk, Virginia. He was married to Helen Caulfield Hoffman and was the father of two children.
Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.