Ham Sandwiches

ham sandwich

“The prosecutor can get the grand jury to indict a ham sandwich,” said zillions.

Are grand juries really so eager to indict ham sandwiches? Any prosecutor worth his/her salt knows grand juries can be prickly, and are seldom impressionable enough to coerce into returning a true bill of indictment for deli meat or particularly weak cases.

Still, it seems like some pundit, reporter, or TV character is always making the “ham sandwich” declaration. If I had a quarter for every time I heard it, I’d be rich—or at the very least, have enough money to buy a few dozen ham sandwiches.

We can blame Sol Wachtler for introducing the phrase into the popular lexicon. Back in 1985, Wachtler was the newly appointed Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals when he told a reporter that prosecutors had such influence over grand juries they could convince them to “indict a ham sandwich.”

Etymologist Barry Popik asked the former top judge about his comment. “Wachtler—who is Jewish—told me that he regrets that he didn’t say ‘pastrami sandwich,’ adding that he may (surely) have been misquoted about ‘ham,’ ” Popik writes.

Wachtler also regrets stalking his ex-lover and threatening to kidnap her daughter—crimes that not only inspired an early episode of Law & Order but got him disbarred and earned him 10 months in the slammer in 1992. Today, he attributes that bizarre behavior (he dressed as a cowboy during his stalking stint) to bipolar disorder. Wachtler was reinstated to the bar in 2007.