From the 14th floor window of his office chambers, Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein can glance out at his home borough. He’s been on the bench for close to 48 years, but even today he is “amazed that I’m a judge.”
With the Eastern District of New York celebrating its 150th year, theBrooklyn Daily Eagle sat down with Weinstein — the longest sitting judge in Brooklyn — who shared his reflections on the district and community’s evolution through the years, the court’s role in the democratic process and the complexities of cases heard in the district.
Weinstein may be one of the oldest sitting judges on the federal bench, but at 93, age is not much of a factor for the learned judge. Of course, Weinstein notes, there are some attributes of an aged person that are “bothersome,” but otherwise, “I feel the same way I did when I was 15 or 16 years old,” he said.
Weinstein came to the Eastern District in 1967 “when there were 3-4 active judges” and is now a part of one of the more diverse courts in the country. “Politically and socially, the district has changed enormously,” Weinstein said. “We now have a very well balanced court politically, and socially we have women, men, people of all races, religions, all backgrounds. It’s a very well balanced court, reflective of the [district’s] community.”
But Weinstein’s entry into the Brooklyn courthouse began long before his appointment to the bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Weinstein is a Brooklyn man through and through. “I came from Brooklyn; I grew up here. So, I’m interested in the community.” His Brooklyn background provides him with a unique perspective when reviewing cases. “I [may] be more empathetic to people in the district,” he said.
But being a judge in the borough of his youth was not always the goal.
“I wanted to be a garbage collector when I was much younger, because they collected all kinds of toys,” the judge said jovially. “But during the Depression until the end of the war, I was just trying to make a living, and up until the time I started in law I was scrounging around to get bread on the family’s table. Things were kind of tough.”
Weinstein was born in 1921 in Wichita, KS, and moved to Brooklyn around the age of 5.
Things were tough even as Weinstein made his was way through school, but Weinstein’s own form of Brooklynexceptionalism provided the Brooklyn-based judge with a particular level of confidence. “I was an officer during [WWII]. I had seen people from all over the country and I realized that although I came from relatively poor people from Brooklyn, that I was as good as anyone else in the country.”
Weinstein was a member of the U.S. Navy from 1943-46, retiring as a full Lieutenant. He served as a submarine officer, mostly in the Pacific, and saw first-hand the complexities of war. That experience has made Weinstein acutely aware of the nuances within war-related — or in today’s environment, terror-related —cases.
Since 9/11, the Eastern District has been the host to a significant number of terrorism related cases — both civil and criminal — and Weinstein has played a judicial role in few. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle report showed that as of January 2013, at least 14 terror-related cases have been arraigned, adjudicated or otherwise heard in the district.
“I’m sensitive to the fact that war is terribly cruel. I helped kill many men and I’ve always been sorry.” Weinstein notes that as a result of his personal experience, he has a good understanding of the complexity of judicial decision in war-related cases. “You have to protect constitutional rights, but you also have to protect the country and its safety. Having been out on the battlefield, in a sense, I see both aspects of that protective problem.”
Four other judges sitting in the Eastern District also served the country during the WWII: Hons. Leonard D. Wexler, I. Leo Glasser, Arthur D. Spatt and Thomas C. Platt.
Judges in the Democratic Process
In February, Weinstein ordered New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to set a date to hold a special election for New York’s 11th Congressional District — a seat left open when former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm resigned from his post in January after pleading guilty to tax evasion.
“That decision was based on the essential foundation of the American republic, which is the right to vote,” Weinstein told the Eagle. The right to vote, and specifically the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is an area of jurisprudence where Weinstein also thinks the U.S. Supreme Court has erred.
During its 2013 term, the high Court overturned Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which included a coverage formula to determine whether or not a state with a deep history of voter discrimination must “pre-clear” any changes in voting rights policies with the federal government. Even self-proclaimed bastions of progressive politics like Brooklyn found themselves subject to the pre-clearance provision.
“I think the Supreme Court made a mistake [in the Shelby v. Holder decision], said Weinstein. “I think we still need it, [the Section 4 coverage formula]. You see what happened in Florida with respect to presidential elections,” Weinstein slyly said with a reference to the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision by the high court, involving a contested voter ballot recount.
Political subject matter aside, Weinstein takes a hands-on role with cases that come across his docket. In 2008, when Weinstein lifted a decades-old desegregation order of the Mark Twain Intermediate School, the federal judge toured the Coney Island neighborhood where the school sits. “I went out there to walk around the streets and get a feel for the neighborhood and the people,” Weinstein reflected.
But legacy is not a concern for the “indomitable Jack Weinstein,” as Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized the judge during the 150th anniversary special session of the Eastern District in March.
“I don’t care about my legacy. I don’t believe in an after-life. Live for the day.” For Weinstein that means living for — in the most part — being a judge of the Eastern District. “I love the work. I’m excited every day. Getting into the office, hearing interesting cases and interesting appeals. Amusing my clerks and colleagues. It’s really a terrific job.”