I spoke with Sol Wachtler, the former New York State chief judge, and he admitted that the phrase was his and was coined during a lunch interview with Marcia Kramer of the New York Daily News. 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."
Wikipedia: Sol Wachtler
Solomon Wachtler (born April 29, 1930) is a New York State lawyer and former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest position in the State judiciary.
"Ham sandwich" quote
Wachtler famously observed that prosecutors have so much control over grand juries that they could convince them to "indict a ham sandwich." The phrase has become something of a cliché used in television legal dramas.
31 January 1985, New York (NY) Daily News, pg. 3:
New top state judge: Abolish
grand juries & let us decide
By MARCIA KRAMER
and FRANK LOMBARDI
IN A BID to make prosecutors more accountable for their actions, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler has proposed that the state scrap the grand jury system of bringing criminal indictments.
Wachtler, who became the state's top judge earlier this month, said district attorneys now have so much influence on grand juries that "by and large" they could get them to "indict a ham sandwich."
New York State's top judge speaks out
Chief Judge Sol Wachtler
Sol Wachtler, newly appointed chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, was questioned at a Daily News NewsMaker lunch this week. Following are excerpts from his discussion with senior Daily News news executives and members of the editorial board and news staff.
(Col. 4 -- ed.)
Q: And the death penalty?
A: I referred to it in a speech once as being the chicken soup of politics -- it can't hurt.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
By Tom Wolfe
New York, NY: Bantam Books
But mainly you used the grand jury to indict people, and in the famous phrase of Sol Wachtler, chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, a grand jury would "indict a ham sandwich," if that's what you wanted.