Judicial Style in California’s Federal Admiralty Court: Ogden Hoffman and the First Ten Years, 1851-1861

Christian G. Fritz

University of New Mexico School of Law


Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3, 1982

The admiralty jurisdiction of California’s federal district court in San Francisco between 1851 and 1861 provides insight into how one federal judge understood and executed his role in a frontier setting. How the Northern District of California’s first judge, Harvard-educated Ogden Hoffman, conducted his court, exercised his jurisdiction, arrived at his conclusions, and fashioned his opinions – what might be considered his judicial style – reveals much about legal practice and judicial process in the far west as the middle of the nineteenth century. An examination of the first decade of federal admiralty cases in California suggests that law on the frontier entailed learning, complexity and legal sophistication as well as self-consciousness among legal practitioners.

Initially most striking in Hoffman’s early admiralty cases are the sources he relied on in reaching his decisions. Despite the international basis of the law of the sea, one might have expected a mid-nineteenth century admiralty court in California to place substantial reliance upon American or English sources and less upon European Continental sources. Hoffman’s opinions attain a striking degree of sophistication in his citation and discussion of Continental – especially French – statutes, cases, and treatises.

The sheer diversity of sources – American, English, and Continental, not to mention the large collection of reports of federal decisions – provides abundant evidence that adjudication in Hoffman’s court did not occur in primitive isolation. Moreover, the manner in which such materials were used suggests that not only Hoffman, but many of those who practiced in his court had been well trained as common law lawyers and were far from parochial in their legal outlook.

Hoffman’s legal education, awareness, and obedience to the dictates of the Supreme Court and Congress, and his idolization of Joseph Story made it unlikely that his court would ride rough-shod over established legal traditions. Instead, Hoffman slowly readjusted his inherited legal values in the face of the peculiar setting of San Francisco and a growing appreciation that the weight of federal judicial authority rested primarily on his shoulders.

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Date posted: October 24, 2010  

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Fritz, Christian G., Judicial Style in California’s Federal Admiralty Court: Ogden Hoffman and the First Ten Years, 1851-1861 (1982). Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3, 1982 . Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1695692

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Christian G. Fritz (Contact Author)
University of New Mexico School of Law ( email )
1117 Stanford, N.E.
MSC11 6070
Albuquerque, NM 87131
United States

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