BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – When he was merely 90 years old, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein had not slowed down his trailblazing practice of transforming the way criminal justice looks and feels.
Two years shy of his 100th birthday on Thursday, Weinstein, the longest-serving federal judge in the United States, surprised many in the legal community by shifting to a status in New York’s Eastern District that few ever have used to describe him: “inactive,” which signals a turn to administrative tasks.
“We judges don’t know what’s going on in the real world,” Weinstein told Courthouse News in a 2012 interview from his 14th story chambers in Brooklyn. “You’re really dealing with human beings here, and that’s a really difficult kind of problem.”
Self-effacing and humble, the remark encapsulated the 53-year career of a storied jurist, perennially searching for a way to connect with the common citizen from the corridors of power and make the law more humane.
This impulse began early in his tenure as a federal judge appointed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson. Weinstein investigated school desegregation cases both on and off the bench.
“I used to go into the school districts and look around,” Weinstein recalled in that 2012 interview. “Sometimes seeing subtle interactions, you get a sense of what’s going on that you can’t get from cold record.”
This physical search for justice followed him throughout his career.
Weinstein famously stepped down from the bench during sentencings to sit with defendants and their families. Putting himself on the same physical level as criminal defendants, Weinstein railed against mandatory minimum sentences Congress forced him to impose as removing a judge’s discretion, breaking apart families, and needlessly filling up U.S. prisons.
Unlike typical court proceedings that leave behind only transcripts, Weinstein videotapes his sentencing hearings to memorialize physical and emotional responses that factor into his decisions.
In 1993, citing his “sense of depression about much of the cruelty I have been party to in connection with the war on drugs,” Weinstein refused to preside over narcotics cases in protest of the harsh jail sentences he would be obligated to order in such cases. Defense attorneys reportedly brought him back around, arguing that he could make more of an impact from the bench than through his absence.
Making another dramatic statement some two decades later, Weinstein visited a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood before sentencing eight gang members living in that community. That trip led to a 133-page ruling by Weinstein outlining the history of economic and racial injustice that led to violence in criminality in the community.
“I like to hear from the defendant himself when I talk to the defendant fairly deeply about background and education and employment and romances, so I get a better feel for the defendant as a person across the table,” Weinstein said.
Despite his qualms about the drug war, Weinstein reported for duty during World War II, attaining the rank of lieutenant for the U.S. Navy.
Asked about that experience in a recent interview, Weinstein recounted his sense of engaging in the humanity of the state’s enemy, in an anecdote about sinking a Japanese cruiser.
“I felt elated about it,” Weinstein told The New York Daily News, which broke the news of his retirement. “But in subsequent times, I’ve felt that the killing of 1,100 men was not warranted. I’ve instructed some Japanese lawyers and judges … and I always have the feeling that those men were unnecessarily sacrificed at the war. I have no feeling of jubilation in killing Japanese men.”
For Weinstein, politicians who emphasize tough sentencing guidelines are often out of touch with their constituents.
“In many respects, I don’t think that politics has caught up with the sociology of the country,” Weinstein said in 2012. “We are a much more open, free, egalitarian country in many respects, even though economically, it’s stratified. And a great many people didn’t know the cost of incarcerating that many people.”
That interview would long predate a growing bipartisan consensus that the U.S. criminal justice has grown too punitive, an understanding that led to the recent passage of the First Step Act.
Read more Courthouse News reporting about cases over which Judge Weinstein presided: