‘I Wanted to Sue Everybody’
The arrest that made a lawyer out of Nina Ginsberg
Published in 2019 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on April 18, 2019
Updated on May 6, 2020
It was 1974, and Nina Ginsberg was outraged. She’d been working as a court liaison for a drug recovery program in Rochester, New York, interfacing with the local courts to divert drug offenders into the program instead of jail. She was so committed to the work that when clients didn’t show up for appointments, she would wander the housing projects at night, looking for them.
“I went places I should have realized might be dangerous,” she says today. “I had this friend who used to say I was the bravest person he knew. And I said to him, ‘I was just doing what felt right.’”
Some of Ginsberg’s recovery program coworkers were recovered heroin addicts. One night, she was driving four of them in her royal blue Chevy Malibu on their way to dinner, when the police stopped them and told everyone to get out of the car. Ginsberg granted permission for a car search, and gave police the keys to the trunk. They came back with a balled-up paper towel that they claimed had a hypodermic needle in it, and arrested everyone.
“I knew that wasn’t possible,” says Ginsberg, “because none of them had the key to my car. Back then, you couldn’t just push a button to open the trunk; you had to use the key. Had they said it was on the back seat, it would’ve been hard to believe, but it could’ve happened. But I knew it couldn’t be in the trunk.”
The police took them all to the station and separated them, placing Ginsberg in a small room where they told her she was ruining her life, and that the only way out was to roll on whomever was dealing drugs.
“Half of me maintained my wits and said ‘I want to call a lawyer,’” she says. “And the other half of me was scared to death. Eventually, they put all of us except one person back in a room and told us that the other person had confessed. They gave me a very stern lecture about how my future was in jeopardy: ‘What was a nice white girl like me doing in a place like this?’ But what kept bothering me was that these men I was with … the police would always be in their lives. So I went home and got into bed for a week. Then I decided I wanted to sue everybody.”
Ginsberg, petite with curly brown hair and a contagious smile, grew up in an 11th-floor apartment in Manhattan, near the East River. Her father’s parents emigrated from Russia, while her mother’s came from Poland and were bootleggers during the Depression. “My mother tells stories about how she used to sing on the street for nickels or pennies,” Ginsberg says, “but she was also a lookout.”
After Prohibition, her grandparents went legit and opened a liquor store in the West Village. Every Saturday, Ginsberg and her sister would go to the liquor store and play behind the counters.
After her grandmother died, Ginsberg’s aunt ran the liquor store with a staffer named Ozzi. “So here’s this old Jewish woman and this Muslim Pakistani who were like mother and son, running this liquor store,” says Ginsberg. “And when my aunt died, she left the liquor store to Ozzi, who is still running it today.”
The child of two lawyers—and someone who wanted to be anything but a lawyer when she grew up—Ginsberg went to private school with other white kids from well-to-do families. The only struggles Ginsberg was privy to were the ones her mother brought home with her.
Her parents’ firm comprised her father’s corporate work and her mother’s estates, domestic relations and copyright litigation. A staunch advocate of equal rights, her mother represented people who wanted to bequeath possessions to their gay partners against the wishes and legal actions of their families. She began doing this in the 1960s, when gay rights was little more than a dream.
“She was a fabulous role model,” Ginsberg says, “an amazing person for her time–very strong-willed and opinionated.”
After high school, Ginsberg spent the summer on a kibbutz in Israel, taking care of chickens and picking apples, pears and cotton.
“People put the community before themselves,” she says. “Nobody really owned anything, and everybody owned everything. We woke up at 4 in the morning to work the land. It was a shared commitment to make this community function and exist and be a home. It was exciting and embodied many of my ideals at the time.”
Then came Rochester, a heroin clinic and the arrest that changed her life. From that point on, Ginsberg’s idealism gained focus. Her goal: to make an unfair system fair—or, at least, more fair. And the best place to do that would be from the inside.
After graduating from Antioch School of Law in 1978, Ginsberg took a job in Alexandria and stayed. She argued cases on the “Rocket Docket,” the nickname given to the Eastern District of Virginia courthouse due to its radical enforcement of “swift justice.”
“It was not unusual in a criminal case for a judge to ask either side, ‘How many witnesses are you going to put on?’ And when you say, ‘12,’ the judge would say, ‘Pick your best six,’” Ginsberg says. “By and large, it forced lawyers to get to the crux of what the case was really about. It also frequently prevented the presentation of robust defenses.”
After a dozen years working for others, she launched a firm with partners Ben DiMuro and Michael Lieberman in 1992. Since then, she’s argued cases involving the death penalty, white-collar crime and national security.
“Nina is one of the best lawyers that I know,” says Jonathan Shapiro, a partner at Greenspun Shapiro in Fairfax. “She is zealous but very levelheaded at the same time.”
Shapiro recalls a tense meeting in which a U.S. attorney was trying to intimidate him, Ginsberg and a couple of other defense lawyers. “The prosecutor was going on and on and trying to be tough,” he says. “And Nina turned on him and said, ‘How dare you treat us like this?’ And then took him to task for three or four minutes. Everybody else was just sitting there with their mouths hanging open. That’s Nina. If there’s nonsense going on, she will call you on it.”
Ginsberg collaborates often with Nancy Hollander, a partner at Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward—and one of Ginsberg’s closest friends. Their relationship goes back 25 years, when they tried a marijuana conspiracy case together.
“It was a little funny, as though ‘the girl lawyers have arrived,’” Ginsberg remembers. “We were allowed to talk to the jury after the trial, and our client was convicted. The woman who was the foreperson said, ‘We loved your clothes and couldn’t wait to see what you were going to wear every day, but how did you think you were going to win this case?’”
Hollander remembers being impressed with not only Ginsberg’s legal acumen, but her empathy, too.
“We spent a good month with this guy, and Nina checked in on him all the time,” says Hollander. “She just really cared about him. And I’ve heard her talk about her other clients and how worried she is about someone, making sure that they are OK, making sure that their families are OK. She’s not just somebody who meets a client in the office and then turns her back.”
Ginsberg doesn’t shy from a challenge—particularly espionage cases, which come with restrictions that make defense work nearly impossible. Once a defense lawyer passes the FBI investigation needed to obtain a security clearance, he or she can only view classified material while locked in a room called a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). The government, upon approval of the judge in a secret proceeding, can refuse to produce any information it believes is too sensitive for the lawyers to know. Then, if the defense intends to disclose any of the remaining classified information in court, they must reveal beforehand what it is to the prosecution and judge.
“Plus,” says Ginsberg, “you have to explain why it’s relevant, why it’s helpful to your defense, and why you don’t get a fair trial if you don’t get the ability to put this information before a jury. So you have to reveal your whole case to the government.” The government can also present substitutions for the classified evidence, which is supposed to provide defendants with an equivalent ability to defend themselves, but that is rarely the case, she adds. “And the cross-examination has to be scripted in advance so that you don’t ask a question which will elicit a classified response. The ability to make a witness look like they’re inaccurate or lying is virtually destroyed.”
“Nina appeared before me in a capital espionage case,” says retired U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee. “It was one of the first capital espionage cases since the Rosenbergs, a case called United States v. Brian Patrick Regan. He was accused of trying to sell secrets to foreign nations in the Middle East. She and her co-counsel did an outstanding job in that case, and Regan did not get the death penalty.”
Following the 9/11 attacks, civilian lawyers with death penalty experience were called in to help the military lawyers assigned to represent detainees. Ginsberg was flown into Gitmo, where she stayed in a metal conex. In the courthouse, a CIA minder oversaw proceedings and pressed a white-noise button anytime he felt something sensitive might come up.
“Half the detainees didn’t even want to talk to the lawyers,” Ginsberg says. “Some were ready to plead guilty and accept the death penalty without the benefit of a trial. Others wanted to defend themselves. I remember the first time we were in front of a judge, these 9/11 detainees, who had been segregated from each other until this time, were all talking to each other loudly in Arabic over the proceedings. There was pandemonium in the courtroom.”
At one point, while Ginsberg was back in Alexandria, some photographs of CIA personnel circulated among the detainees. They were discovered in the cell of Ginsberg’s client, prompting an investigation and making her a media target.
“I got approached in a drug store parking lot by a group of FOX reporters who shoved microphones in my face and started accusing me of endangering CIA agents,” she says. “They kept saying, ‘How can you represent these people?’ And I told them, ‘The rule of law is the rule of law, and people have to be represented.’ … The story was rebroadcast and it mischaracterized me as having been responsible for disseminating the photographs. They made it sound like I was the lawyer who outed the CIA agent. We couldn’t get them to stop running the show. I started receiving email death threats.”
At 67, Ginsberg has ushered in the next phase of her career: president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“NACDL and its members are particularly blessed to have Nina Ginsberg as its next president,” says Theodore Simon, past NACDL president. “She is poised to be one of NACDL’s great presidents. With her unique combination of great skill, wisdom and thoughtfulness; her recognized intellect, enormous compassion, concern and dedication, she enjoys the universal respect and admiration of lawyers, judges and clients. She is a lawyer’s lawyer and when in need, a client’s best friend.”
Her big-picture initiatives include addressing the role of women in the criminal justice system, both as lawyers and the accused, and tackling under-resourcing of defense counsel. “I’d like to see funding priorities more equalized so that people who are charged with crimes actually have lawyers who can protect their rights,” she says. Another thing she’s concerned with is the implicit bias that is pervasive in the criminal justice system. “In order to deal with implicit bias, whether it’s racially motivated, economically motivated, gender-based, whatever the motivation, courts have to allow lawyers to honestly present these issues to juries.”
In the meantime, it’s the small victories that carry.
“The personal aspects of this are really, really important to me,” Ginsberg says. “Being able to provide a robust defense for somebody, making sure they are treated fairly, and being able to make what is a really excruciating experience a little less painful is what matters most and what keeps me wanting to do this.”