From the very beginning, Benjamin D. Goldberg knew he wanted to be a public defender. And he did all the right things to make that happen.
Now Goldberg, 30, has been plucked from his public defender post in North Georgia to enter private practice with an Atlanta lawyer known for taking high-profile cases. If he finds himself making lots of headlines, as well, it will probably all come back to his dedication to a little traffic case that he took all the way.
After his time getting a criminal justice degree at Northeastern University in Boston sparked his interest in representing poor criminal defendants, Goldberg came home to Atlanta to study law at Georgia State University. While there, Goldberg interned with organizations that would prepare him for the career he envisioned: the Georgia Innocence Project, the appellate division of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and the Federal Defender Program.
Goldberg had been offered a permanent job with the standards council’s appeals office, he says, but that fell through over budget problems. So, after finishing law school in 2007, Goldberg packed up for North Georgia, where he would work for three years as a public defender in the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, which covers Whitfield and Murray counties.
“I was interested in kind of getting out there in a more rural county to get more experience faster,” says Goldberg. “It was a good fit. I was nervous about moving to Dalton, because I’d lived in a city my whole life, but it ended up being an amazing experience.”
One of the first cases that he picked up there would be the one that would put him in the spotlight and lead to his return to Atlanta. His client, Todd C. McNair, had been stopped by a Dalton police officer, purportedly for making an improper left-hand turn. McNair had activated his left-turn signal before turning into the outer, right-hand lane of a four-lane road. He was charged on the ground that under a Georgia traffic statute he should have turned into the inner of the two east-bound lanes, instead.
“Immediately upon reading that statute, it made my head spin,” says Goldberg. “I asked a lot of people about it to see if they could figure out what that statute meant, and everybody seemed confused by it.”
Before the Superior Court in Whitfield County, Goldberg secured jury acquittals on DUI and misdemeanor obstruction charges against his client. Goldberg maintains that McNair was “absolutely not guilty” of those charges and that police had been harassing his client. But Goldberg’s arguments that the traffic statute was unconstitutionally vague didn’t convince Superior Court Judge Jacques O. “Jack” Partain III, so he had to take his client’s conviction on that count to the state Supreme Court.
It was his first argument before that court. But he convinced all seven justices to rule in his favor. The June 2009 ruling had Goldberg’s phone ringing with press calls. “It’s just kind of captured people’s attention,” says Goldberg.
It caught the attention of Atlanta criminal defense attorney B.J. Bernstein. She’s been in the spotlight in the past, most notably for her success in securing the release of Genarlow Wilson, who had received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a crime that’s been described as Wilson having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
Bernstein says Goldberg’s willingness to take McNair’s case to the state Supreme Court as a young public defender showed that he was dedicated, creative and unwilling to simply accept the status quo. “That’s not normally what you see on a traffic offense,” she says.
She called him out of the blue this past spring to set up a meeting, and the two clicked. He joined her firm just a few weeks ago.
Goldberg clearly has mixed emotions about the move-he says he’s sad to leave the public defender’s office in Dalton and never expected to be going into private practice now. But he says it was too good an opportunity to pass up, and he’s not worried about losing his public defender roots. “I know who I am,” says Goldberg. “I want to continue to do things to benefit the community as a whole and more specifically to be a part of indigent defense in some fashion or another.”
Plus, he’s glad to be home, where he’s making wedding plans with Christie Crane, government relations manager for the Public Defender Standards Council. The two hope to buy a house soon, and he says he’s looking forward to having space for a drum set, which he began playing as a child.
Meanwhile, up in the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, circuit public defender Michael R. McCarthy is divvying up the office’s appeals, now that he no longer has Goldberg to handle the majority of the appellate work there. In addition to the McNair case, Goldberg has won a pair of Court of Appeals cases and recently argued a murder appeal at the state Supreme Court. “Our judges and DA were very happy to see him go,” says McCarthy. “They’re thinking our appeals are going to suffer now.”
McCarthy says Goldberg’s heart is in indigent defense, but he’s expecting to hear big things from him as he moves into private practice. “I just hope he’ll remember us when he goes onward and upward.”