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High Caliber Justice


As the judge has grown more outspoken, he has drawn more fire. University of Texas law professor Linda Mullenix, an expert in mass torts, sees Weinstein as a Brooklyn version of Judge Roy Bean -- dispensing a homespun brand of justice east of the Pecos. But the judge gives as good as he gets. In 1993, Mullenix came face to face with Weinstein when she was speaking at the American Law Institute. The hot button she pushed was, of course, mass torts. "He started railing at me," she recalls. "I was really taken aback. If he gets mad at you and yells at you, it's kind of like God booming."

Weeks later, Mullenix was floored -- and charmed -- when she received a letter of apology in the mail. It started off disarmingly: "My wife keeps telling me that I should stop yelling at people . . ."

"I have to tell you," she says, "he's the only man who's ever yelled at me and then apologized in a handwritten note."

On the morning of February 11, the jury's latest missive suggests they've made little headway: "What do we do when both sides feel that the preponderance of evidence is in their favor?"

Once again, Weinstein explains the jurors' duty to them -- and reminds them to come back to him if they're deadlocked. "We've arranged for lunch for you," he says, "not as a reward, but just so you have your sustenance."

There must have been something in the food. After lunch, another note arrives: "We want to stay a little late tonight. We seem to be coming very close. Some of us feel uncomfortable taking the train when it is dark. Can we get cars home?"

The judge is more than happy to accommodate, even ordering refreshments to be sent into the jury room.

And before long -- at 5:25 p.m. on Thursday, February 11 -- what seemed like a hung jury abruptly reaches a verdict. Fifteen out of 25 gun manufacturers are found negligent, but only three are found liable and just $520,000 is awarded to just one of the plaintiffs, Steven Fox, the only victim still alive, albeit with a bullet lodged in his brain. Both sides declare victory -- but the gun lawyers immediately accuse the jury of an unfair compromise. Weinstein gamely offers to hear any post-trial motions on that score, but this round is officially over.

In 1994, Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley proposed a gun bill that, among other measures, would make dealers who negligently sold firearms to criminals or youths liable to pay damages to victims of gun violence. The bill tanked -- the Contract With America and the midterm Republican landslide ruined any hopes for it. The jury in Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, however, seemed to sign off on the idea: Any gun company that didn't restrict where its product could be sold was negligent; the others were spared.

"The bottom line is that 75 percent of people across America are for gun control, and the NRA, in a variety of ways, blocks anything from happening in Congress," Schumer tells me. "The courts are a last resort, but we're getting to a point where we need a last resort. It's analogous in a lot of ways to Brown v. Board of Ed., where legislators were afraid to do certain things. I'm sure a lot of segregationists at the time said that without Earl Warren, the case wouldn't have happened."

Just how widely would Weinstein apply negligence if given the chance? His friends in Great Neck say he never discusses his cases while they're in session.

But Lou Dorfsman, who still exercises with Weinstein three times a week, did manage to chat about the case with him afterward. "He thought if you can lay this gun thing on these guys -- the manufacturers -- then there's got to be a case against the automobile business," the judge's friend recalls. "It seems they're next in line. He just made that observation in passing."

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