Weinstein, Jack Bertrand

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Weinstein, Jack Bertrand

For more than a quarter of a century, Jack Bertrand Weinstein has championed the fight for an independent judiciary. As a federal district judge—and later chief judge—for the Eastern District of New York, he has written, lectured, and testified about the importance of fostering strong, free-thinking jurists in the U.S. courts. As a young judge, he exerted his independence by eschewing the traditional black robe in the courtroom (except for ceremonial occasions), and as a senior judge he continued to go his own way by refusing to hear drug cases because he disagreed with federal sentencing guidelines.

Weinstein's independence has also manifested itself in his innovative approach to the organization and disposition of mass tort cases (large-scale personal injury litigation); he has been a central figure in mass tort litigation related to subjects such as the chemical known as "Agent Orange" and silicone breast implants. Weinstein has written that judges must not isolate themselves from society if they are to make informed decisions. His commitment to that philosophy has been reinforced by the variety of his own life experiences.

Weinstein was born on August 10, 1921, in Wichita, Kansas. Though born in Kansas, Weinstein was raised in the Williamsburg and Bensonhurst communities near Brooklyn, New York. His father, Harry Louis Weinstein, was a salesman; his mother, the former Bessie Helen Brodach, was an amateur actress. As a toddler, Weinstein accompanied his mother to auditions, and by age eight, he too was performing on stage. During the Depression, he brought home $25 a week to supplement the family income. He carried an Actor's Equity card for years. After high school, Weinstein put himself through Brooklyn College by working on the docks in New York Harbor. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1943, but not before his college education had been interrupted by service in World War II. Weinstein, who later described himself as a "submariner," was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve from 1942 to 1946.

On October 10, 1946, Weinstein married Evelyn Horowitz. When he entered the law school at Columbia University the following year, the first of his three sons had already been born. His wife worked nights as a social worker to support the family, while Weinstein took care of the new baby and attended classes. He received his bachelor of laws degree from Columbia Law School in 1948 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1949.

After graduation, Weinstein clerked for New York Court of Appeals Judge Stanley H. Fuld. Two years later, in 1950, he partnered with William Rosenfeld to open a New York City law firm. His specialty was litigation. The partner-ship ended in 1952 when Weinstein returned to Columbia Law School as an associate professor of law.

For the next 15 years, Weinstein forged multiple and overlapping careers as a teacher, lawyer, and public servant. From 1952 to 1954, he was special counsel for the New York Joint Legislative Committee on Motor Vehicle Problems; counsel to New York State Senator Seymour Halpern; research assistant at the New York State Senate, and a volunteer at the Legal Aid Society of New York.

Beginning in 1954, Weinstein spent four years as a consultant to, and reporter for, the New York Temporary Commission on Courts. He made a name for himself by heading a panel that rewrote the rules governing how civil cases are practiced in New York courts; he was soon recognized as a leading U.S. authority on the rules of Civil Procedure. In large part due to his work in this area, he was made a full professor of law at Columbia in 1956.

The demand for Weinstein's expertise grew along with his reputation. While maintaining a full schedule of classes at Columbia, he served as advisor to, or member of, numerous academic, civil, judicial, legal, legislative, and government groups from 1957 to 1962.

He also became more active in political circles. From 1963 to 1965, Weinstein served as county attorney for Nassau County, New York. He also served as counsel to a number of New York state legislative committees. In 1966, he was named commissioner of the Temporary New York State Commission on Reform and Simplification of the Constitution, and he was an advisor to the New York State Constitutional Convention the following year.

Weinstein began writing and publishing in the late 1950s. Some of his early works include Cases and Materials on Evidence (with Morgan and Maguire, 1957); Elements of Civil Procedure (with Rosenberg, 1962); Essays on the New York Constitution (1966); A New York Constitution Meeting Today's Needs and Tomorrow's Challenges (1967); and Manual of New York Civil Procedure (with Korn and Miller, 1967).

When a federal district court vacancy occurred in early 1967, Weinstein's national prominence as an educator, author, and public servant made him a logical choice for the position. He was appointed U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of New York on April 15, 1967, by President lyndon b. johnson. He entered duty on May 1, 1967.

From the beginning, Weinstein was an independent and innovative jurist. He wore a business suit to court rather than the traditional black robe, and he could often be found sitting at a courtroom conference table with the parties in a dispute, rather than presiding from the bench. He believed that judicial trappings only served to distance and separate the public from a system that should be accessible to everyone.

His style and his determination to make the system open and flexible enough to address the real problems of real people sometimes left him open to attack—and reversal. Sheila L. Birnbaum, an attorney who frequently appeared in his court, said, "He often reached what he believed to be the right result and then reached to expand the law to get there." This tendency earned him the nickname "Reversible Jack."

As a judge, he maintained his ties to academia. He was an adjunct professor of law at Columbia from the time of his appointment to the bench in 1967 until 1995. He served in a similar capacity at Brooklyn Law School. Over the years, he has been a visiting professor of law at George Washington University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, New York University, the University of Colorado, and the University of Texas. He also has been a frequent lecturer on other legal campuses around the United States and the world. Similarly, Weinstein continued to publish in his field of expertise while on the bench. His seven-volume Weinstein's Evidence, and Weinstein's Evidence Manual, both written with Professor Margaret Berger, were first published in 1975.

In 1981, Weinstein became chief judge of the district court, and he began to make his mark in the area of complex mass tort litigation. From 1983 to 1986, Weinstein worked with chemical manufacturers and Vietnam War veterans to settle the thousands of Agent Orange cases clogging the courts. Within months of taking over the five-year-old dispute, Weinstein pressured chemical manufacturers and plaintiffs' lawyers to establish a $180 million fund for veterans taking part in the Class Action.

As chief judge, Weinstein continued to be a watchdog for those in society most vulnerable to exploitation. For example, in 1984, he ordered the federal government to rewrite Medicare forms, making them more understandable to average Senior Citizens.

Weinstein took senior (or semiretired) status in 1988. Exercising his right as a senior judge to choose the cases he would hear, he decided that he would concentrate on complex cases and would not hear routine matters—including drug cases. Weinstein does not agree with federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. He has written that the strict sentences imposed in drug cases often do not fit the crime, impose exceptional hardship on families and dependent children, and have not proven to be an appropriate or effective deterrent.

In one of his first cases as a senior judge, Weinstein overturned a jury verdict against the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), allowing the utility to settle a long and nasty dispute with customers over the construction of a Nuclear Power plant. Weinstein's ruling led to an agreement between LILCO and its customers—and a cut in utility rates.

In 1990, Weinstein was asked to tackle the backlog of asbestos-injury cases in the nation's courts. Weinstein and nine other judges developed a plan to consolidate the cases into three groups (or classes) for trial. Though initially rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a judicial panel on Multidistrict Litigation finally agreed, in 1991, to consolidate all pending asbestos cases in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (In re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation, 771 F. Supp. 415). The following year Weinstein helped to consolidate cases involving the anti-miscarriage drug DES. And later in 1992, he recommended the consolidation of more than 40 suits involving repetitive-stress injury.

Through his work, Weinstein developed a philosophy for handling mass tort cases: obtain scientific and medical information as early in the process as possible, consolidate cases for ease of administration, and cooperate with the state courts. Although consolidation of mass tort cases provides for convenience and economy of effort, Weinstein admits that the system is not perfect and that reform is necessary. In September 1992 he told the Wall Street Journal that many people caught up in mass tort cases feel "alienated and dehumanized" and that the present system does not always meet their individual needs.

Weinstein continues to serve as senior judge in the Eastern District of New York. He also continues to serve the people and the profession by his active involvement in many legal service organizations, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Judicature Society, American Law Institute, American Association of University Professors, American Bar Association, Institute for Judicial Administration, International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Society of American Law Teachers, and International Society of Public Teachers of Law.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Weinstein continued to hear cases of major import. For example, in early 2003 Weinstein presided over a class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP against 80 gun manufacturers (NAACP v. American Arms Inc.). The NAACP sought an Injunction that would impose certain restrictions on the sale of firearms, contending that gun manufacturers are negligent in making firearms readily available to criminals. As a result, a high number of African Americans and minorities fall victim to injury and death. In July 2003, Weinstein dismissed the case in a 175-page decision. He stated that NAACP lawyers had supplied sufficient evidence to prove that gun manufacturers are guilty of "careless practices," but they had failed to prove that minorities are uniquely harmed by such practices.

Further readings

Hechler, David. 2003. "The Last Gun Suit?" National Law Journal (April 14).

"Jack Weinstein: A Jurist Who's Willing to Lead." 1993. National Law Journal (December 27).

Kolker, Robert. 1999. "High Caliber Justice." New York Magazine. Available online at <www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/893> (accessed February 25, 2004).

"The Man Who's Cutting Through the Asbestos Mess." 1991. Business Week (January 28).

"Newsmaker: Jack B. Weinstein." 1992. National Law Journal (January 6).

Weinstein, Jack B. 1994. "Learning, Speaking, and Acting: What Are the Limits for Judges?" Judicature (May–June).