Sound judgment: D.C. family court judge
Joan Goldfrank 73C 76L
BY PAIGE P. PARVIN 96G
Visitors to the office of Joan Goldfrank 73C 76L often wonder why she has a photograph of Three Mile Island—hardly a picturesque landscape or soothing beach scene—hanging on her wall. Goldfrank may well be the only judge in Washington, D.C., who counts the site of a nuclear plant among her former homes.
Just after graduating from Emory’s School of Law, Goldfrank joined the presidential campaign of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Her commitment to Carter paid off: his victory won her a position as special counsel in the newly formed Department of Energy, where she helped prosecute major oil companies. It was “a fabulous job for a kid [fresh] out of law school,” says Goldfrank, now a family court judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
Three years later, in the wake of a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant—the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident until the Chernobyl incident in 1986—Goldfrank was sent to the site on the island in the Susquehanna River. She spent weeks there, living in a trailer and taking thirty-seven depositions from those involved, right up to the president of the company. Her work ultimately became part of the report and recommendations the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island presented to Congress.
Goldfrank took an unconventional route to law school. As an Emory undergraduate, she chose to major in Chinese history, largely thanks to the inspiring instruction of Professor Irwin Hyatt.
“He was such a fabulous teacher,” she says. “He really made you understand the Chinese people. He reinforced my desire to understand others and gave me respect for looking at things in different ways, which is so critical to what I do today.”
Goldfrank’s law career has shifted direction a few times, but remained anchored by her ethical convictions. After leaving the Department of Energy, Goldfrank joined a small law firm devoted to energy litigation, but she came to realize private practice was not what she wanted to do. She took a position with a hospital, where she first handled cases concerning the treatment and placement of patients who were mentally challenged or ill, a foreshadowing of her current constituents.
Goldfrank then became the executive attorney to the D.C. board on professional responsibility, the body charged with monitoring attorney conduct, where she worked in an advisory capacity for nine years. In 1994, she joined the U.S. Department of Justice.
Goldfrank’s experience with the intricacies of legal ethics would serve the department well. Soon after her arrival, Goldfrank and two colleagues created a new initiative at the Justice Department: a professional responsibility advisory office. For the first time, attorneys in the department had an internal resource for advice on all manner of ethical and professional questions.
“I remember the first day we opened the office, we were literally sitting around on the floor, thinking, ’Is anyone going to call?’” Goldfrank laughs. “But the very first month, we had thirty calls. By the time I left we were getting 130 calls a month. I felt very good that I had given something to the Department of Justice that would help them. It’s one of the things in my career I’m very proud of.”
Colleagues and friends encouraged long Goldfrank to seek an appointment as a judge. “I thought I didn’t have enough wisdom, not enough white hair or something,” Goldfrank says with a wry laugh.
But three years ago, after seventeen years of dealing with ethics issues, Goldfrank felt ready for the tough, day-to-day choices of family court. Now she calls on all her wisdom and may be augmenting her white hair, too, as the judge who handles involuntary civil commitment cases—those clients judged to be mentally ill or a danger to themselves or found incompetent to stand trial. She hears a thousand such cases a year, as well as the initial hearings in cases of juvenile neglect and abuse.
“It’s definitely intense,” she says. “You are making decisions about people’s lives that will affect their entire future. That’s the part I like, making decisions, but every time I do it I kind of swallow and think about the tremendous responsibility I have. There’s never an easy answer. This is not simple math but complex algebra. As a judge, you have to be very patient, very thoughtful, and you have to expect a human reaction.”
Goldfrank recalls a case in which a man who had fainted on the street was found to be living in his apartment by himself with severe alcohol dementia, surrounded by nothing but empty liquor bottles. Goldfrank decided to commit the man, a formerly successful architect, to a treatment facility, where he recovered and received outpatient treatment for the rest of his life. Two years later, he died—but his wife called Goldfrank to thank her for what she had done to help him.
“He had two grown daughters, and she told me those two years really allowed him and his daughters to reconnect,” she says. “It gave them time they otherwise would not have had. You rarely get those phone calls, but when you do, it’s wonderful.
“Being a judge is a nice way to end my career,” Goldfrank adds. “I’m an optimist, it’s part of my personality. Whatever job I have, I stay in as long as I am learning and growing and can stay positive.”