It’s been a half century since Eastern District Judge Jack Weinstein was appointed to the federal bench, but his judgeship hasn’t been completely traditional.
Weinstein, who ditched the black robes and the high bench for a business suit and a conference table since the start, is gearing up for his 50th anniversary, which the Eastern District will celebrate July 13 with a reception starting at 4 p.m. at the Brooklyn federal courthouse.
The judge, known for his handwritten notes and heartfelt holiday wishes, said, “Judging is an art, not a science. I have to see the real people, the real scenes and feel the problem in my bones.”
Weinstein is one of the longest-serving judges on the federal bench. The only one who may have served longer is U.S. District Judge Manuel “Manny” Real of the Central District of California in Los Angeles, who marked his 50th year on the federal bench last November. Real turned 93 in January.
At 95, Weinstein is one of the oldest sitting federal judges, and has no plans to retire anytime soon. “An occasional nap” during the day and a refreshing view of the Brooklyn Bridge from the 14th floor window of his office chambers help keep the energy alive, he said.
According to his colleagues, it’s not just the business suits that set him apart, but the connections he forges with people.
Former Eastern District Judge, John Gleeson, who is currently a litigation partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, said in his 2013 profile of Weinstein in the Law Journal, “Imagine a colleague who in busy times, when everyone’s work backs up, says ‘Send me all your backed-up work’ and then does it, asking nothing in return.”
Prior to being appointed to the bench in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Weinstein said that being responsible for subordinate officers helped him perform his duties as a judge later in his life.
“I felt in full command of the court from the moment I walked in,” he said. “Not in a dominating way, but just naturally in control.”
Being one of the few judges to have completed 50 years serving the bench and having moved up from his chambers on the sixth floor in that time, Weinstein continues to have “an insatiable intellectual curiosity and boundless energy” Gleeson said in his profile.
“Our work as judges will always be unfinished,” Weinstein said this week.
An adjunct professor at the Brooklyn Law School and a former professor at the Columbia Law School, Weinstein loves working with his law clerks and interns. “We are joyfully welded as one—intellectually and emotionally.”
Widely known for having presided over difficult cases, he said his dismissal of the ‘Agent Orange’ damages suit in 2005 might be his most memorable case. Weinstein dismissed a suit by Vietnamese plaintiffs that accused American chemical companies of war crimes for supplying the U.S. military with Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War (NYLJ, March 11, 2005).
Weinstein also is known for his opposition to mandatory minimum sentence. He found that a single civil traffic infraction on a man’s record did not justify a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug felony (NYLJ, May 12, 2016) and departed from sentencing guidelines in a child pornography case, after questioning a sentencing framework that “largely failed to distinguish among child pornography offenders with differing levels of culpability and danger to the community” (NYLJ, Jan. 29, 2016).
He is also one of the few judges to have adopted the unconventional method of conducting mini-trials shortly after cases were brought, “with the parties themselves present to tell their stories” so he could “get a feel for the litigation.” Additionally, he has written several books on rules of evidence in the federal courts and civil practice in New York.
Weinstein said his cases are always on his mind, and he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night to discuss them with his wife.
Her reply, he said, is to “go back to sleep.”
Shibani Gokhale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.