Court commissioner publishes wild stories from the bench

by Judith Kahn

Agatha Hoff, a Hungarian immigrant who lives in the Richmond District, is now a retired court commissioner with many a tale to tell. She has accomplished this in a humorous book titled "Judge* Hoff, Jesus Loves You But The Rest of Us Think You're An A**Hole." The title was taken from graffiti left by a disgruntled litigant on a bathroom wall in the court house.

The book reveals Hoff's experiences over a 20-year period in the criminal, traffic, Small Claims and family courts, but the bulk of her stories are taken from her experiences while presiding in the traffic and family courts.

Hoff was hired in 1981 by the SF Municipal Court, first as a traffic referee and then rotating into various assignments. When the Municipal Court was later unified with the Superior Court, she became a Superior Court Commissioner and worked in that role for 20 years.

Hoff said she likes to deal directly with people, which is why she chose to work in the court system rather then practice corporate law. She remarked that as a kid she always liked parades - she said it became clear to her "on the very first day of my assignment to preside as a court commissioner, that I had landed a job as the grand marshal of an endless parade of the human race."

Of Hoff's 20 years dispensing justice at the court house, she spent 13 dispensing verdicts in traffic court.

"It was as though a hiccupping conveyor belt, each person told his or her story, stayed only for seconds, received my verdict, and then faded away," Hoff said.

At the beginning of each day, a clerk placed a file folder on her desk inscribed with the title "Parking correspondence," which contained the incoming mail from the previous day. At the end of the day, after dispensing justice to numerous cases, she would enjoy sitting back in her chambers reading the letters and dispensing her verdicts by mail. Some of the letters are funny, some poignant, but all depict the writer's struggles, offering her a glimpse into their lives.

Hoff's book includes excerpts of some of the most memorable letters she received and the most humorous cases she presided over. For example, she quickly learned in traffic court that many car owners had pet names for their cars; one Toyota owner named his car "Peola." Her favorite scofflaw went though a flashing red light, arguing his innocence because he "went though it on a blink."

She recalled her first litigant in traffic court, a man who strutted up to the bench wearing a white undershirt emblazoned with "F__k You" in blue lettering. He was quickly told he needed to turn his T-shirt inside out.

Once, in family court, she presided over a divorce case which involved a five-year battle over community property; the custody of a Spanish pig, which the couple treated as though it were a dog, was at stake. After some 16 hours of billable time, it was agreed that the porker "El Mundo" was to travel back and forth between the parent's vacation residences.

Hoff said the reasons for people getting divorces never ceased to amaze her, including one woman who claimed her husband "loved the bird more than he loved me."

Previous to being appointed court commissioner she worked as a transcriber and researcher at a personal injury law firm. In college Hoff worked part-time as a legal secretary. Afterwards, she continued to work her way through various law offices until attending the San Francisco Golden Gate Law School, which she graduated from in 1975.

During her legal career she handled many pro bono cases for indigent litigants, and was involved in many other activities, including training paralegals at San Francisco State University and teaching law at the Downtown High School.

Hoff's journey to the United States is documented in a book she wrote entitled "Burning Horses, a Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down."

Born in Budapest during World War II, her family had lived both under the German and Russian occupations of Budapest. Her father died in 1945 and her mother remarried in 1947. Her mother was of Jewish ancestry but she was brought up Catholic. As the situation in Budapest became more dangerous, her mother decided it would be best for Hoff and her sister to live with separate farm families for a year. When her parents crossed the Hungarian border illegally into Austria in 1948, they got jobs, sent for their children and applied for entry into the U.S. They received their visas in March of 1949 and immigrated to the United States.

Realizing that if they waited for the children to receive permission to enter the U.S., their names would go at the end of the list and they (the parents) would have to start the process over again and, if the Hungarian quota got filled, they would never have a second chance.

Her parents headed to the U.S. and put Hoff and her sister in a boarding school in Austria. Upon arriving in the States, they contacted Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in the hopes that he could expedite Agatha and her sister's entry into the United States. Cabot Lodge successfully put a rider on a bill in the Senate which allowed Agatha and her sister to arrive in America in September of 1949.

Hoff is now approaching 75 and enjoying her retirement. She has gone skydiving and continues to be an avid long distance bicycle rider in the Bay Area. She is currently involved in publicizing both of her books and helping friends who are older and not as healthy as herself. Hoff belongs to SF Village, which is an organization that helps seniors age in their own homes. On occasion, she volunteers at KQED and helps with fund-raising events at the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, which raises money for community organizations. She enjoys watching foreign films and reading historical novels and stories of other immigrants' journeys to the United States.

For more information about Hoff or her two books, "Judge* Hoff, Jesus Loves You But The Rest of Us Think You're An A**Hole" and "Burning Horses, a Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down," go to the website at Hoff will be giving a reading of her book at Phoenix Books, 3957 24th St., on Feb. 13, at 7 p.m.