Jokes tumble from Barry Silverman’s mouth like children on to a playground. “You know, they say the definition of a lawyer is a Jewish boy who can’t stand the sight of blood,” says the 56-year-old judge, chuckling.
More than 40 years in Phoenix must have dried his sense of humor.
As one of 27 judges for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — he commutes to California to hear cases — the Bronx-born jurist sits among the most powerful members of America’s judiciary, one level below the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a serious place.
“The work we do is such that a person with a sense of humor is just such a relief from the work,” said Fred Martone, a U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix and former Arizona Supreme Court justice and Silverman’s colleague during their years as Maricopa County Superior Court judges.
Silverman’s early attraction to law — “when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player,” he says — and a few key mentors aided his rise through the system.
In the late 1960s, Silverman attended Phoenix’s Central High School alongside Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. During breaks from school, he would hang around the courthouse and watch trials. Silverman said a Superior Court judge, William Gooding, invited him to sit in his court and office to observe. He was watching cases start-to-finish by age 15.
Then in 1969, for a school project, Silverman learned about the 1966 landmark case of Ernesto Miranda, whose appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court led to the “Miranda rights,” including the “right to remain silent,” being read to those arrested.
Silverman’s interest in the case inspired him to meet the career criminal, a Mesa resident who he repeatedly visited in jail. Silverman decided to write Miranda’s biography.
“(My parents) were a little bit horrified that I befriended Ernesto Miranda, a world-class rapist,” Silverman said. “They were afraid I was going to bring him over to the house or something, which I never did.” But he did produce a manuscript which evolved into the “development” stages of a television movie and appeared as a feature story in Phoenix Magazine.
At Arizona State University and after, Silverman stoked an interest in journalism — freelancing for magazines, hosting a Sunday morning radio show and later writing humor columns for Arizona Attorney Magazine.
His colleagues say he also manages to be a wine connoisseur, a magician and a great lover of his beagle, Bagel. And he says he still loves baseball. The Diamondbacks, in particular.
But mostly, he’s a judge. Seven days a week. And it’s not his humor, or magic, that got him there.
“He has an interesting combination of characteristics not necessarily duplicated by anyone else on the court,” said Susan Graber, a Portland, Ore.-based judge on the 9th Circuit. She cites common sense, humility, carefulness and kindness.
“He works very hard at trying to reach the right conclusion without any preconceived notion of what it ought to be,” Martone says. “(He has) tremendous integrity.”
Silverman learned from the best. As a trial attorney for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Silverman was assigned to a particular courtroom — that of Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the nation’s first female U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1981.
“To be in her court day in and day out, to see a really, really good judge in operation every day is what probably inspired me more than anything else,” Silverman said. “There were a lot of good judges out there, but I mean, she was the ultimate.”
Framed on his wall is a handwritten “Congratulations” note from O’Connor regarding a case he had in her court and won on appeal. He called the note one of his prized possessions. Near O’Connor’s note hangs Silverman’s confirmation letter from the U.S. Senate for his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1998.
Silverman was appointed by former President Bill Clinton at the recommendation of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
“I guess they were looking for a registered Democrat that Republicans would be able to stomach,” Silverman said of his appointment. “It just sort of fell in my lap, really.” A massive workload followed.
“This Court of Appeals is a full-time job and then some,” Silverman said, noting that the 9th Circuit, which hears cases in San Francisco and Pasadena, Calif., is the busiest in the country. He cites immigration cases as a major reason for huge backlogs in the court.
“Overnight, we had 14,000 more cases,” he said. “If we had nothing but immigration cases, we’d be busy morning ’til night.” To keep up, the judge works every weekend, and expects to work every day of his career until retirement. “I don’t go home with my ‘in’ box full,” Silverman said. “I can’t sleep at night if I have unfinished business. In order to do that though, I feel like I’m sprinting pretty much all the time.”
Being well-organized makes it possible. “When I started for him, I couldn’t keep things organized,” said Andy Jacob, a Phoenix lawyer and a clerk for Silverman from 2003 to 2004. Jacob said now his colleagues come to him to find case materials. Regardless of the workload, Silverman said he prizes his post.
“I can’t imagine a better career. I’ve basically been a career jurist. It’s really been an amazing trip,” he said.
Silverman’s funny side
Hanging on Judge Barry Silverman’s wall beside the door to his office, in the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix, is a humor column he once wrote for Arizona Attorney Magazine. It begins with a letter he received in the late 1980s from a defendant:
“My Dear Judge Silverman: I do solemnly swear that you are undoubtedly the biggest unmitigated a------ a merciful god ever put upon the face of the earth. Where the hell did you come from out of the slime? How did someone so stupid as you get to be a judge? I swear you are dumber than even a bankruptcy judge. You are vile, contemptible trash, a mockery to justice ... I wish you had never been born,” began the letter.
“Then the letter went on to become insulting,” Silverman wrote.