I first call Weinstein at his Brooklyn chambers before eight in the morning. He's been at the office for a half-hour already. He mentions that at 77, he's slowing down; for most of his career, he has shown up to work at five. Although he stopped teaching at Columbia last year, he maintains a full caseload. His energy level belies his years -- this summer, he's planning to bicycle through Italy with his wife, Evelyn, a social worker, and their family -- but it's a laconic sort of energy. Never strained or tense, his voice is soft and nonconfrontational, even when he says something provocative. Does he consider himself the activist judge others believe him to be? "If by activist you mean the judge feels an obligation to improve the law and make it more effective, I think most judges are activists," he says in the warmly lit chambers. "The conservative judges on the Supreme Court are very activist."
What has driven him over the years, he says, is neither a rigid adherence to the law nor, necessarily, independence. Instead, he says his career has been guided by his social conscience. "After the Holocaust, after winning the war, we were feeling quite elated and powerful," he says. "After this powerful country that we had was expanding and rich and was turned over to us, we had opportunity, and we were going to use it."
A large Ben Shahn illustration of an Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. quote looms over Weinstein's desk: if you believe great things, you may be able to make others believe. It is a copy of a backdrop Shahn created for a Fred Friendly CBS documentary on the Supreme Court. Lou Dorfsman, a neighbor of Weinstein's in Great Neck and a former CBS creative director, had the copy made especially for Weinstein. Dorfsman is convinced that Bobby Kennedy, who recommended Weinstein for the bench in 1967, would have appointed him to the top court had Kennedy made it to the presidency: "I'd been thinking he'd be a perfect guy for the Supreme Court."
Cuomo agrees, lamenting that Weinstein "would have had more impact if he were up higher." And yet, with Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, Weinstein may have pulled off a stunt that even Congress couldn't.
Weinstein grew up in Bensonhurst, an ethnically mixed, peaceful neighborhood a world away from the Bedford-Stuyvesant of Freddie Hamilton -- the main plaintiff in the gun case, whose son was killed on the street by a bullet intended for someone else. Weinstein remembers a time when neighbors looked out for one another; if he or his friends stepped out of line, it would be reported back to his parents. What's happened to much of the city since has helped shape his legal thinking. If anything, Weinstein's work on class-action cases can be seen as a method for bringing control back to communities overwhelmed by outside forces. "Families broke up, they scattered and moved out to the suburbs, so there was a lot of instability," he says. "Drugs came into the scene. Guns came in."
His father was one of the first Jewish sales managers at National Cash Register; his mother worked as an illustrator's model. After earning her Actors' Equity card, Bessie Weinstein got cards for her sons Jack and Bill. In addition to appearing on Broadway in Subway Express and I Love an Actress, young Jack also earned money going door-to-door selling clothespins that he found on the ground and arranged into packs. As a teenager, he delivered milk, sometimes by horse-drawn truck. For seven years, Jack worked on the Brooklyn docks by day and attended Brooklyn College at night -- where he met his future wife at the library. During the war, he served as a lieutenant on a naval submarine, a bit of a trick for a man who stands six feet two.
Once home and married, and with the first of three sons on the way, he enrolled in an accelerated two-year law program at Columbia. After a brief stint in private practice, he joined the Columbia faculty and kept his hand in public policy by working for State Senator Seymour Halpern of Queens. He and Evelyn settled in Great Neck, raising their sons and hooking up with a social circle he still keeps ties with.