Judge Mark Goldsmith brings a lifelong love of the law to his courtroom.
The blind draw for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan is designed to impartially assign criminal and civil cases to the district’s 22 judges.
But every so often, the luck of the draw has an uncanny knack of favoring a particular judge with a lot of high-profile cases.
For a dozen or so years beginning in the mid-1990s, it was U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, now retired (2003 sleeper cell case, partial birth abortion, Tamara Green case, Jack Kevorkian case).
And U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds had her turn (Underwear Bomber, Kwame Kilpatrick et al, Chris Webber).
These days, it is U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith.
During the past two years, the blind draw has sent Goldsmith several major lawsuits that have made headlines.
In late 2016, Goldsmith decided the fate of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s presidential recount in Michigan. In 2017, he presided over two legal challenges to more than $34.5 million in taxpayer backed bonds to construct the new Little Caesars Arena for the Detroit Pistons.
Today, Goldsmith is handling a lawsuit that could decide whether hundreds of Iraqi Christians will be sent back to their homeland and an uncertain future for violations of U.S. immigration law. A January ruling from Goldsmith stated that the detainees were eligible for hearings before being deported.
In his ruling, he wrote, “Our legal tradition rejects warehousing human beings while their legal rights are being determined, without an opportunity to persuade a judge that the norm of monitored freedom should be followed. This principle is familiar to all in the context of criminal law, where even a heinous criminal — whether a citizen or not — enjoys the right to seek pre-trial release.”
(His decision was appealed by the government and is still pending. To read more about the Iraqi deportation case, check out Detainee Defenders.)
In an interview with the JN, Goldsmith sat down to talk about his background and views on the law.
He always dreamed of becoming a judge when growing up in a predominantly Jewish community on Detroit’s northwest side. When he was in junior high, on his days off he would take a bus Downtown to sit in the different courthouses, from the old Recorder’s Court, where criminal trials were held, to Circuit Court and the Federal Court, which he always saved for last. “It was like a cathedral,” he says.
He says he still has that same sense of awe when he comes to work every day at the courthouse on Lafayette in Detroit, where he has served since nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2010.
“Every day when I come into work in this majestic edifice where we work to solve some of the more momentous problems that we have to face, I’m struck by how grateful I am to be here,” he says.
His Early Years
Goldsmith comes from a traditionally Conservative home in Detroit in the 1950s-’60s. His parents, Max and Alice, were founders of Adat Shalom Synagogue, where his father served as president and his mother served as president of the sisterhood.
“Judaism was always a big part of our lives. I went to shul each week and enjoyed Shabbat dinners every Friday together as a family,” he says. “I continue that tradition to this day with family and friends.”
He was a student in the inaugural class of Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, attending the school from grades 1-9 and graduating in 1967. He then went to Israel, where he began his sophomore year a few days after the Six Day War.
“It was a marvelous experience and a great privilege to spend a whole year there. It was one of the greatest blessings of my life. I learned so much about the land and learned to speak fluent Hebrew. The experience really deepened my attachment to Israel,” says Goldsmith, who has since visited the Jewish state 16 or 17 times. “I kind of lost count.”
His sister made aliyah in 1970, and each year she visits the U.S. or he visits Israel. “There’s always something new to explore, some new perspective I get each time I go.”
He came back to Detroit for his junior year, attending Cass Tech High School and graduating in 1971. From there, it was on to the University of Michigan. He knew he wanted to go to law school and have a legal career of some kind.
“I wasn’t quite sure if it would be teaching, in government, in private practice or politics, but I knew whatever I wanted to do, it would start with law school.”
The communal aspect of law appealed to Goldsmith. “I liked the idea of trying to solve problems. I’ve always thought of lawyers as peacemakers. Even though it may not appear that way to everyone, lawyers are ultimately engaged in a peacemaking activity.”
After U-M, he headed east to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1977 and began a career in private practice, first in New York and then back to Michigan where he spent some six years as a solo practitioner and over 16 years as an associate and partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn.
He applied to fill a vacancy in the Oakland County Circuit Court and was appointed to that bench in 2004 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and was elected later that same year and re-elected in 2006. In 2009, he applied for a federal judgeship to fill a vacancy on the bench. Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, recommended him to Obama.
Going from state judge to federal judge was an adjustment as the two jobs are completely different, he says. “Dockets of state courts are much busier. In state court, I would be in trial roughly every other week; and here in federal court, I’m not in trial nearly as much.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s doing less work. “It’s different kinds of work — much more time spent in reviewing and analyzing motions,” he says. “I end up addressing many of the legal issues in the motions I preside over as opposed to in a trial. I love being a district judge because I enjoy trying to understand how the law addresses important issues that impact our lives, and I derive great satisfaction in playing some role in that.”
He’s earned a reputation for being a tough but fair judge. Lawyers who represent both plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases say Goldsmith is neutral in his rulings. One lawyer offered the following advice to others appearing in front of Goldsmith: “You’d better be prepared, and your written submissions should be well organized, succinct and compliant with the rules.”
A Love Of The Law
According to Goldsmith’s views, the law embodies the basic values of society. “In America, we look at the Constitution as the repository of our fundamental values. As a federal district judge, I’m one of the first responders when there is some invocation of the law, whether it’s of the Constitution or some statute or common law,” he says.
“We at the district court level begin that judicial conversation about what the law requires or allows — what the fundamental values are and how they’re impacted by the claimants. I’m trying to sort all that out. Trying to determine what facts are in dispute or what facts are really not in dispute — which can be a challenging exercise.”
Goldsmith’s Jewish values help shape the kind of judge he is. “I think every judge is impacted by his or her background, no matter what that might be,” he says. “In my case, my Judaism has imparted to me certain basic values that in many ways are consistent with the fundamental values of our Constitution. For example, Judaism focuses very much on individualism — the dignity of each human being important.
“From the Ethics of Our Fathers, we are taught that he who saves one person has saved an entire world. That is a magnificent statement about individual human dignity. American law has that same focus on the importance of every individual’s dignity. That really is what our Constitution is all about,” he continues.
“There’s a famous passage in the Torah: ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ The commentators interpret this as requiring just means to accomplish just results. This same approach is very consistent with American law, which requires a fair outcome brought about by a fair process. I bring to my job those kinds of Jewish values, the focus on individual human dignity.”
The role of a judge also comes with limitations, according to Goldsmith. “You have to have a sense of acceptance of limitations because you’ve taken an oath to follow the law. And if I personally disagree with a particular law or how it has to be applied, that is something I simply accept as part of my job.”
Goldsmith emphasizes that the job of a judge is not to be concerned with policy but to judge what the law says and how it should be applied in a fair manner.
“It may well turn out the judicial decisions impact policy in significant ways,” he says. “But we don’t want judges to be politicians; we have other branches of government who worry about policy. Judges are supposed to stay focused on what the law says.”
Goldsmith lives in Oakland County with his wife, Judy, whom he met in 1986 at a Jewish Federation “break-the-fast” dance. They are shomer Shabbos. Together, they have a daughter, Molly, 24, a son, Jared Rosenbaum, 39, his wife, Stephanie, and their two children, Alexis and Emily.
Throughout his life, Goldsmith has been actively involved in the Detroit Jewish community. At one time, he served on the executive committee of Federation’s Young Adult Division (now called NEXTGen Detroit) as well as on the board of the Anti-Defamation League. He’s been involved in leadership positions at previous shuls, including Congregation Beth Shalom where he served as president.
He’s also served as president of the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association. He became a fellow of the Michigan State Bar Foundation in 2005 and was honored with the Wings of Justice Award by the Oakland County Democratic Party in 2009.
Although not professionally trained as a cantor, over the years, Goldsmith has studied cantorial music on his own and often leads the chanting at the Woodward Avenue Shul, where Judy makes the cholent for Kiddush. “We’re the only shul in town with a cholent bar — four different kinds! I invite everyone to come try it out!”