DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — The average person would hope to be long into retirement by age 92, but not Judge Richard Goldberg.

The Fargo native who sits on the U.S. Court of International Trade has been going strong in the position for 29 years, ruling on cases that impact trade across the U.S. and around the world. He has handed down decisions on federal cases for appellate and trial courts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North Dakota.

His most memorable cases have included a North Dakota inmate who sued the state after being hogtied and left naked, and a "Christmas Grinch" who scammed children out of thousands of dollars with the promise of a fake holiday extravaganza in Miami.

Goldberg is the oldest sitting judge on the international trade bench, the third from North Dakota to be appointed to that particular court and, as far as he knows, the only active federal judge who has served in all three branches of government and the private sector, he said.

“What is a North Dakota person doing on the Court of International Trade?” he asked with a smile.

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Appointed by President George H. W. Bush, Goldberg joined the court in 1991. He's one of nine judges in New York chosen to serve for life on the court that handles cases revolving around international trade. It is one of three national courts, alongside the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

His work includes hearing cases on customs classifications and import transactions. President Donald Trump’s tariffs have been sent to the court, but Goldberg said he isn’t on any of the panels that will rule on those cases.

He celebrated his birthday on Monday, Sept. 23, saying he is 92 years young. When he is not chambered in New York, he and his wife of 55 years live in a century-old cottage on Lake Melissa near Detroit Lakes.

His caseload will drop significantly in December, when he plans to give up his office in New York. He still will be on call to take the bench for some international trade cases.

“I basically will be kind of folding tent,” he said. “I’ll be free to do what I want to do, whatever that is.”

Judge Richard Goldberg, 92, reminisces about interesting cases from his legal career from his home in Detroit Lakes, Minn. He is the oldest sitting judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade, one of three national courts in the country. David Samson / The Forum
Judge Richard Goldberg, 92, reminisces about interesting cases from his legal career from his home in Detroit Lakes, Minn. He is the oldest sitting judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade, one of three national courts in the country. David Samson / The Forum

From ND to DC

Fellow International Trade Judge Thomas Aquilino Jr. detailed a long list of Judge Goldberg’s achievements in 2016 and 2017 nominations for the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, a recognition bestowed on North Dakotans by the governor.

“He’s amazing,” said Aquilino, who was appointed to the International Trade Court in 1985.

He hopes he will get the opportunity to testify about Goldberg in Bismarck, but Aquilino said he hasn’t heard back from the group that receives nominations for the Rough Rider Award. Gov. Doug Burgum's office did not respond to an email from The Forum asking about the status of the nomination.

Goldberg graduated from military school in 1945, and he received his law degree from the University of Miami. He was involved with the family business, Goldberg Feed and Grain Co. in West Fargo for several months in the late 1950s. He eventually served as the company’s president and CEO from 1959 to 1983, and the business was later sold to Anheuser-Busch.

Goldberg was a prosecutor for court martial cases in the Air Force, practiced privately in Washington, D.C., was an adviser for the Federal Communications Commission and was elected from 1966 to 1974 as a North Dakota state senator. He served on several local, state and federal boards, including the West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and the National Grain and Feed Association.

What brought him to D.C. was an opportunity to join President Ronald Reagan’s administration as a deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1983 to 1989. He negotiated agricultural agreements with the Soviet Union, China, the European Union and other counties.

Several photos hang in his house depicting meetings at that time, including one of a meeting with Reagan and other U.S. officials in the Oval Office. “Reagan was so disarming. When you met him, he gave you the thought he’d known you all his life,” Goldberg said.

He almost didn’t take the job with the Agriculture Department because he would have to give up his grain business. He also had two children.

“My wife said, ‘Why can’t we go? We’ll never get an opportunity like this again,’” he said.

“How could you not do this?” Mary Goldberg asked, adding that it was exciting and interesting.

“The rest is history,” he said.


'Genuine, outgoing, real'

Cases that Judge Goldberg has handled can become complex, especially ones stemming from China, which is considered by the U.S. as a non-market economy. That means the Chinese government plays more of a significant role in making allocations and pricing decisions than free market countries, said University of North Dakota economics professor David Flynn.

China faces different, more restrictive regulations because of its designation, which makes the cases more challenging, Goldberg said.

His more memorable cases are criminal ones, he said. The judge recalled sentencing a promoter who scammed children out of money for a nonexistent Christmas show in Miami to seven years in prison.

The 2003 scheme centered around David Lee Ellisor selling tickets for $10 to more than 2,700 schoolchildren and parents, according to court documents. School buses hauling hundreds of children arrived to a locked auditorium where the event was supposed to be held, Goldberg said.

“And these little kids are crying because they couldn’t get in,” he said, referring to Ellisor as the “famous Christmas Grinch.”

Goldberg also noted a civil lawsuit brought by Eugene Littlewind, a Native American man from Fargo who sued the North Dakota State Penitentiary for violating his rights when he was an inmate.

Littlewind claimed prison staff kept him hogtied and naked for several days in an isolated cell, according to news reports. A U.S. District Court jury found his rights were not violated, but Goldberg overturned the ruling in 1993, noting the state hardly disputed testimony that Littlewind was mistreated.

“He was chained so he couldn’t go to the bathroom,” he said. “It was a pretty bad situation.”

Goldberg is friendly with anyone he meets, Aquilino said, jokingly saying that Goldberg’s weakness includes not carrying himself in an aggressive, bragging fashion. “He’s such a genuine, outgoing, real — as I call him — American,” Aquilino said.

Goldberg said he's made many friends and met so many people over the years. He said he appreciated the camaraderie he's built up with his fellow judges and staff.

“It’s a fun job,” he said. “I would say it’s not the highest paying job I’ve had, but it’s the most fun and interesting.”