Heading up: Federal judge brings wealth of experience to Flint bench


– Photo by Paul Janczewski

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Terrence G. Berg’s goals during his professional life unfolded as a series of steps up a ladder. 

From choosing a university where he could further his interest in international affairs, to doing volunteer work in Nicaragua, working as a clerk for a U.S. District judge, serving as a federal prosecutor, and finally being nominated as a federal judge, Berg’s career progressed through careful planning and an eye toward the future.

Today, Berg, 55, sits as a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Michigan in the Flint office, a post he has held for the past 18 months. He said that working as a law clerk after graduating from law school “was the first time I realized what a great job being a federal judge was, and the positive impact you could have on the community.”

“I just thought that being able to get to a position like that was too difficult,” Berg said, fraught as it is with political connections and other obstacles.

In Berg’s favor, though, was his steady rise up the legal profession, his quest for knowledge, coupled with his desire to give back to the community.

Berg was born in Detroit, and raised in Madison Heights until he was 8 years old.

The family moved to Grosse Pointe Park and he graduated from high school there in 1977. Berg attended the University of Michigan his freshman year of college, but transferred to Georgetown University, where he attended its School of Foreign Service, graduating magna cum laude in 1981.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to get into.” Berg said. “I was interested in history and international affairs, and Georgetown had this specialty. The other reason is that I was very interested in what it would be like to study in Washington, D.C.”

Following graduation, Berg was one of 10 grads who went to Central America for volunteer work and was stationed in Nicaragua.

“That was a really significant experience for me,” he said. “One of the things I learned was that, in some ways, you feel like you receive more from the community you are with than you can give to them.”

That experience was what led Berg into law.

“I could see how important it was to have a skill to be able to help other people,” he said.

After returning to the States, Berg enrolled at the Georgetown University Law Center, graduating cum laude in 1986. He then became a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Anthony A. Alaimo in the Southern District of Georgia.

“He was a great guy and very much a mentor to me,” Berg said.

After working briefly for a law firm in Washington, Berg applied to a number of U.S. Attorney Offices, and was hired in Detroit in 1989.

“Working for Judge Alaimo, I got a taste for what federal litigation was, and I saw the work the U.S. Attorney’s Office did, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do,” Berg said. “It was great to be back home, and great to be in that office.”

He said being a prosecutor, as opposed to being in private practice, is about “doing the right thing in your cases based on the law and the facts required without being concerned about what a client wanted or what would make money.”

Berg moved up the ladder there, and for the next 10 years worked in general crimes, the drug unit, and eventually white-collar crime and fraud cases.

In 1999, Berg joined the office of the Michigan Attorney General under Jennifer Granholm, whom he worked with earlier at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“She wanted to set up a unit dedicated to fighting Internet crime in Michigan,” Berg said. “When I was a prosecutor, I always enjoyed the fraud cases, because it was a more complicated investigation and you had to prove the person had the intent to commit a crime.”

During his time there, Berg was assigned as a Computer Crime Fellow for one year with the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

He left the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in 2003 and returned to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District.

He stayed with that office until he became a federal judge, always moving up the ladder, from Chief Assistant to Interim U.S. Attorney, from 2008-10. He was selected by the Department of Justice to serve on special details.

“After I stopped serving as Interim U.S. Attorney, the D.O.J. contacted me to serve in the middle district in Georgia as acting assistant,” Berg said.

Upon his return to Detroit, another opportunity arose, Berg said. This involved working with a new unit formed to help recommend discipline for federal prosecutors found to have committed misconduct. During that time, Berg learned of a judicial vacancy.

“Probably ever since I was a law clerk, I admired the role of a judge, and the administration of justice,” Berg said.

While many attorneys hope to one day become a judge, Berg said “it wasn’t a goal that I necessarily thought I’d be able to achieve.”

“But it was one that I always looked at as being the apex of the legal profession.”

Berg was nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court in April 2012 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December. He took office in January 2013.

“To me, being a judge combines the best of the legal profession and public service in one,” he said.

He said his varied background has served as good preparation for becoming a judge.

“Every judge brings their own experience from their career,” Berg said. “But this job is a constant learning experience, and that‘s why it‘s such an appealing job. It’s a thrill, and every day you come in thinking what an
honor it is, and how much you want to live up to that honor.”

Berg said the transition to the bench has been smooth.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a great, talented case manager at organizing cases and scheduling my docket, and all my law clerks have prior civil practice experience.”

Although Berg still lives in the Detroit area, he’s found Flint to be “a very pleasant surprise.”

“It has a real nice sort of small town atmosphere to it,” Berg said.

He will serve a four-year term in Flint before going back to the Detroit bench.

“But people here have been great, the community has been very welcoming, and it has a very active bar association.”

Berg has taught law in the past, most recently at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and earlier at the Wayne State University Law School.

“But since I’ve been a judge, I’ve been focusing on that,” he said, although he may eventually return to some teaching. “The longer you serve on the bench, the more things you’ve seen, and the more lessons you can
teach to young lawyers.”

He has also taught seminars on computer science, and conducted courses for the Department of Justice, the FBI Academy, and for prosecuting attorney associations in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Utah.

He’s also trained prosecutors in Bangkok, Thailand, Bulgaria and the Philippines. His writings have appeared in various law reviews, state bar publications, and national magazines.

In his leisure time, Berg likes to run and is part of a running group in his neighborhood. He’s been married for 26 years, and he and his wife have three children.

But for now, all Berg wants to do is be the best U.S. District Court Judge he can be.

“As long as I have my health, I’ll keep plugging away.”