The Judge in the Light Tobacco Case

Melissa Block talks with Tom Perrotta, staff reporter for the New York Law Journal, about U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who is the presiding judge on the class action lawsuit involving "light" cigarettes.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The federal judge who ruled today in this tobacco case has a long history with class action cases and mass tort litigation. U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein was appointed to the bench in 1967 by President Johnson. He's presided over cases involving the defoliant Agent Orange, asbestos, the anti-miscarriage drug DES, and gun makers.

Reporter Tom Perrotta of the New York Law Journal has been following this case and others before John Weinstein. I asked him why the judge is considered a pioneer in this area of the law.

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Reporter, New York Law Journal): Well, I think the thing that's most interesting is that he never believes that - or very rarely if ever believes - that a court can't approach a complex problem that's presented in a class-action lawsuit. He very much believes that the system of law is capable of handling things, and he won't undersell the role of a jury.

He doesn't believe that, you know, something is too complicated for them. If tried properly and if handled correctly, they can come to conclusions about whether people were smoking light cigarettes - as it is in this case - you know, should've suspected that those cigarettes were equally as bad for them or that they can decide which members of this class actually belong in the suit and which ones don't.

BLOCK: At the same time, you wrote that in a hearing on this case earlier this month, he was skeptical about whether this could be considered a true class, and he had a lot of questions about how you would figure out damages, it sounds like.

Mr. PERROTTA: I think that's vintage Weinstein, from what I've come to learn over the years. He asks a lot of questions, and he's difficult to read in the sense that you'll think he's very skeptical about something, but he's maybe just sort of in his mind ironing out, you know, a final few details.

BLOCK: And in this cigarette case, at this hearing, what were his concerns about the questions that he wanted to be able to put before the jury or the information that he wanted the jury to have?

Mr. PERROTTA: Several concerns, as far as the plaintiffs' theory. One is that I believe there's a study that the plaintiffs have that suggests that 90 percent of light cigarette smokers started smoking or smoked light cigarettes because they thought they were less risky than regular cigarettes. He doubted that the number would be that high.

He was also concerned with how you value the damages, but he's decided that, you know, the jury is the ultimate system for sort of figuring this out.

BLOCK: Just Weinstein has come in for a lot of criticism over the years that he's a classic liberal activist judge who stretches the law in favor of plaintiffs. What have you heard from lawyers as they talk about arguing before him and how he's ruled?

Mr. PERROTTA: I think you do hear a lot of that from lawyers, especially from the defendants' side. The one thing that I find interesting about Judge Weinstein is that as much as you do hear that, you never hear anyone call him some sort of political hack or something like that. There is a lot of respect for him despite all that.

He's widely known as a very intelligent, very hard working man. He's 84 years old now, and he works as hard or harder as any judge in this building, even though he's on senior status, which is technically supposed to give you less work, if you're a senior judge. But he doesn't see it that way.

And you know, and I think even his - people who are supporters of him and appreciate his works will say to you, you know, he does bend the law, but bending the law is something that everybody does, and he's bending it in the hope of finding, you know, a resolution to a case that involves a lot of pain and anger or some sort of social problem. It's a means to an end for him, and he does get reversed more than other judges get reversed who are at this level.

BLOCK: He does?

Mr. PERROTTA: He does, definitely.

BLOCK: Before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mr. PERROTTA: Second Circuit, yes.

BLOCK: I read something that Judge Weinstein said in an interview 15 years ago with the New York Times. They were asking about his judicial philosophy. He said I prefer that the law be protective of those who otherwise would be without the power to protect themselves. Is that the kind of language that you hear echoed in his writings from the bench?

Mr. PERROTTA: I think so. I think the law can be a very powerful thing for the powerless, and he knows that, and I think he's willing to at least consider if, you know, a courtroom is the right place for those people to air their grievances and receive something in return for them, some sort of reparations, if necessary.

BLOCK: Tom Perrotta, thanks very much.

Mr. PERROTTA: Thank you so much for your time.

BLOCK: Tom Perrotta is a reporter with the New York Law Journal.

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