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February 12, 2020

Legendary jurist (and sentencing Hall of Famer) Jack Weinstein finally retiring at age 98

More than 15 years ago, I did some blog musing here to add warmth to a November day by imagining a "Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame" — an institution in the mold of The National Baseball Hall of Fame — which would seek to foster an appreciation of the historical development of sentencing jurisprudence and its impact on our justice system.  (Compare the mission statement of The National Baseball Hall of Fame.)  Notably, in that original post, I suggested that Judge Jack Weinstein was surely a first-ballot member of a Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame given his many tape-measure (i.e., lengthy) sentencing opinions that were jurisprudential home runs.

I am reminded of these musing by this remarkable New York Daily News report headlined "After legendary 53-year career, Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein hangs up his robe at age 98."  Here are excerpts that only partially cover his sentencing work through many decades:

For years, those around Judge Jack Weinstein dared not mention the R-word — retirement.  Finally, at age 98, the longest-serving federal judge in the country decided it’s time. Weinstein has shifted the 90 or so cases on his docket to his fellow Brooklyn Federal Court jurists. On Monday, he moved to inactive status, which means that except for some administrative tasks, his 53-year-career is over.

“I just about used up my reserves of energy and I felt that I could not really go on and have the assurance that I could give full attention and full energy to each one of these litigants.  That being so, it seemed to me highly desirable to turn it over to the other judges on the court,” Weinstein said in his 14th-floor chambers, which overlook Brooklyn Heights, the East River, Manhattan and New Jersey....

Weinstein, who was appointed in 1967, was the last federal judge in the country named by President Lyndon Johnson.  Still sharp, with a clear memory — but slower to speak than he used to be and relying on a walker — the judge spoke with the Daily News while his wife, stepdaughter and two clerks looked on.

The levelheaded judge denied he was sad about leaving the job he’s enjoyed for more than a half century. Asked if he’d miss being a judge, he paused. “Yes, I think so, of course. This is an excellent court. I love my colleagues. And the ability to work with them on a daily basis was one that I treasured.”

Weinstein made headlines in 2018 for saying he would not toss ex-convicts back in prison for smoking pot while on supervised release. He is also known for his lenient sentences — including one in the case of a man convicted of distributing child pornography. “We continue using the criminal law to unnecessarily crush the lives of our young,” he wrote in 2013 in a response to the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled his 30-month sentence for the child porn distributor was too lenient, based on the five-year mandatory minimum the charge carries.

Weinstein says harsh sentences are a poor idea, and that he’s always tried to give the lightest sentences he can so that people can be freed and try to build a better life. “I think our sentencing has been much too extreme, and I’ve done what I could to reduce the cruelty of it by sentencing at the lowest possible levels that I could,” Weinstein said. “Most sentences are too extreme. We keep people under supervised release much longer than they should be. They should be reintroduced to family and to jobs and creative work.”

He admitted being troubled by the case of ISIS sympathizer Sinmyah Amera Ceasar, who broke her promise to help the government after she was busted for helping the terror group’s recruiting efforts.  Prosecutors wanted Ceasar sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison.  But Weinstein thought such a sentence would have been “excessively harsh," especially since in his view Ceasar was well on her way to rehabilitation. “We need to rule from a place of love, not hate,” Weinstein said.

Sentences in Brooklyn Federal Court are the lowest in the country, and Weinstein’s are the lowest in the court, the judge said....

Weinstein, a proud graduate of Brooklyn College, enrolled at Columbia Law School after the war. After he graduated in 1948, he clerked in 1949 for Stanley Fuld, a judge on the New York State Court of Appeals.  Soon after, Weinstein went to work for Thurgood Marshall, whom he considered a friend and mentor.  Marshall — whom President Johnson appointed to be the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice — at the time was the lead lawyer for the NAACP.

Weinstein contributed research and briefs to aid Marshall’s argument of Brown vs. Board of Education.  Marshall and his legal team won a ruling from the Supreme Court that said segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.  Weinstein said that as he worked on the Brown case, he knew it would result in a historic decision. “But unfortunately, it did not result in a vindication of African-American rights, particularly in New York City. The schools here are among the most segregated. ... It’s a great disappointment,” the judge said.

In retirement, Weinstein plans to spend more time with his wife and to help one of his three sons — who is retired himself — with a book on Jim Crow laws. He’s not worried or thinking about hitting 100 years old. “That’s just another day in my life. A very wonderful life it has been.”

February 12, 2020 at 11:36 PM | Permalink

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