NEW YORK — Edward Weinfeld, whose reputation for fairness over four decades on the federal bench extended far beyond the Federal District Court in Manhattan where he served, died of cancer Sunday at his home here.
The oldest active federal district judge in the nation was 86.
"There is general agreement on bench and bar throughout the nation that there is no better judge on any court," Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court said of Weinfeld a few years ago.
He maintained a full caseload until illness forced him to step aside in late November after he tripped and fell as he was leaving the U.S. Courthouse where he was presiding over a tax-fraud trial. He attempted to return to work but finally was forced to turn the case over to another judge.
He was noted for working 12 hours a day, six days a week on cases ranging from the McCarthy era, when he ruled that the subcommittee headed by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy lacked authority to investigate author Corliss Lamont, to the New York City bribery trial of a water commissioner.
Weinfeld also ruled that judges in state courts could not promise lenient prison terms to induce defendants to enter guilty pleas; that punitive damages could far exceed normal compensatory ones in libel cases and that bandleader Skitch Henderson should go to jail for six months and pay a $10,000 fine for filing false income tax returns in 1969-70.
He said a few years ago that he approached his work "with the same enthusiasm that was mine the very first day of my judicial career. What one enjoys is not work. It is joy."
Weinfeld was born on the Lower East Side and attended law school at night while working at odd jobs during the day. He opened his own law office in New York City, became active in the city's Democratic Party and enjoyed a friendship with Gov. Herbert H. Lehman, who named him New York state's first housing commissioner in 1939. President Harry S. Truman appointed him to the federal bench in 1950 on Lehman's recommendation. Lehman by then was a U.S. senator.
Mayor Edward I. Koch recently selected him for the city's highest award, the La Guardia Medal, which he was to receive in March.
He is survived by his wife, Lillian, two daughters, a sister, a brother and five grandchildren.