Learn about the case — historical background and documents
The Federal Courts and Their Jurisdiction
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois
The Chicago Eight, later Seven, were indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on charges of conspiracy to incite riots and on individual charges of intent to incite riots or to promote the use of incendiary devices. The court’s chief judge, William Campbell, presided over the grand jury investigation. Campbell was randomly selected as the trial judge following the grand jury’s indictment, but he recused himself because of his familiarity with the evidence presented to the grand jury. Then Judge Julius Hoffman was randomly selected to preside over the trial.
When the defendants appealed their convictions on criminal contempt, all of the district court’s active judges, except for Judge Hoffman, petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit for permission to file a brief supporting the broad authority and discretion of a trial judge to punish contempt. The court of appeals denied permission, saying that it would be almost impossible for the district judges to avoid the appearance of supporting one side in the dispute over Judge Hoffman’s contempt charges. More than two years later, the U.S. court of appeals reversed the contempt convictions and remanded them for retrial by another judge in the district court. At the request of the chief judge of the court of appeals, Chief Justice Warren Burger designated Judge Edward Gignoux, of the U.S. District Court of Maine, to serve on temporary assignment as the judge of the retrial of the contempt charges. Gignoux presided over the trial that ended on December 6, 1973, with the conviction of three defendants and one of their attorneys on thirteen counts of contempt.
The district courts were established by the Congress in the Judiciary Act of 1789, and they serve as the trial courts in each of the judicial districts of the federal judiciary. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois was established in 1855, when Congress divided Illinois into two judicial districts. Illinois was subsequently divided into three judicial districts, but the Northern District has always included Chicago. The court’s jurisdiction over the Chicago conspiracy trial was based on federal laws making it a crime to travel across state lines with the intent to incite riots and on laws making it a crime to demonstrate the use or manufacture of explosives that might be used to disrupt commerce.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
The five defendants found guilty in the Chicago conspiracy trial appealed their convictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. All seven defendants and their two attorneys also appealed their contempt convictions to the same court. A panel of three judges, Walter Cummings, Thomas Fairchild, and Wilbur Pell, heard arguments in both appeals. On May 11, 1972, in an opinion written by Judge Cummings, the panel reversed the contempt convictions of all of the defendants and remanded the contempt charges to the district court for retrial. The panel dismissed some of the contempt convictions of attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass and reversed the attorneys’ other convictions, which were also remanded to the district court. On November 21, 1972, in an opinion written by Judge Fairchild, the panel reversed the convictions on the charge of violating the Anti-Riot Act and remanded the individual cases to the district court for retrial at the discretion of the government attorneys. By a 2–1 vote, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Anti-Riot Act, and Judge Pell wrote a dissenting opinion explaining why he thought the act was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard various other cases related to the conspiracy trial. In the fall of 1969, the court of appeals upheld a district judge’s decision rejecting the National Mobilization Committee’s motion for a court order halting the grand jury investigation of the demonstrators and for an order declaring the Anti-Riot Act unconstitutional. In May 1972, the court of appeals dismissed four of Bobby Seale’s contempt convictions, reversed the other twelve, and remanded the remaining charges to the district court for retrial before another judge. The court of appeals rejected the appeal of the three defendants and attorney William Kunstler, who had been found guilty of contempt in the retrial conducted by Judge Gignoux. In 1981, following release of information about private communications between Judge Hoffman and the U.S. attorney during the original trial, the court of appeals upheld Judge Gignoux’s decision not to reverse the contempt convictions.
The U.S. courts of appeals were established by the Congress in 1891. A court of appeals in each of the regional judicial circuits was established to hear appeals from the federal trial courts, and the decisions of the courts of appeals are final in many categories of cases. The Seventh Circuit consists of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, and the Seventh Circuit court of appeals has always met in Chicago.
The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial