2018-04-26 / Around Town

Conversation with Judge Robert M. Silva

The Path of the American Dream
By Jocelyn O’Neil

Middletown Municipal Judge Robert M. Silva has served the town as council president in the 70s and continues his service as a member of the 275th Founders' Day celebration. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Middletown Municipal Judge Robert M. Silva has served the town as council president in the 70s and continues his service as a member of the 275th Founders' Day celebration. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Robert M. Silva has been practicing law in Middletown for the last 52 years. These days, he’s known as “Judge Silva,” after taking the bench as a municipal court judge for the town of Middletown.

“My father was hardworking. He never was able to go to college, so he made sure that I was able to go to school,” he says about why he went into law. “I just kind of followed the path of the American dream, according to my father.”

Silva sat down with Newport This Week and discussed his long career, what case gives him the most pride and what path he would have taken had he not gone to law school.

How did your career begin? I went to Boston College Law, graduated and started looking for work. A friend of mine was a student at Boston College and he had a law firm that had just lost two attorneys so I put my resume in there and got selected and took the job. I was never one of those people who knew what I was going to do my entire life, like some people. Did you have a role model or mentor? Augusto Sao Benoto. He was the gentleman that kind of guided me in the direction of public service and to be a lawyer. He had a law firm in East Providence and when I was a page in Providence, that’s when I met him. He kind of took me under his wing and helped me get “the bug” for public service. You've been a practicing lawyer for several decades. How can the law attract the next generation? Well, I don’t know whether everybody would have a calling to the law. I just kind of migrated and evolved into the profession. The practice of law is significantly different than when I first started in 1966... There are so many attorneys now that it’s frightening to figure out whether or not you can make a living as an attorney.

Although you practice all aspects of law, you have earned the reputation as the "go to" land use and zoning lawyer. What were some of the major issues you faced? I faced a real challenge in 1973 when President Nixon declared he was taking the Navy out of Newport. The federal money that would trickle down to the community was basically gone overnight. The loss of that aid was critical to the community. I remember a picture on the cover of the Newport Daily News, the sailors had attached a bedsheet over the side and wrote, “Last sail out of Newport! Shut off the lights!” That was very close to what could have happened. I was close with Senator Claiborne Pell, so I called and said that we needed help. He immediately introduced legislation in Congress and the Senate so that the Navy money wouldn’t be immediately taken out. As a community,

we had to decide how to assist ourselves and deal with our own economy. We were able to pass a bond issue to purchase what is now the corporate park. And that, to this day, is probably my most meaningful accomplishment and contribution in public service, because that has maintained the vitality as a whole of the community.

How can municipalities balance the need to grow yet maintain the rural and historic charm of the area? That is the challenge. You often hear people say how much they love Aquidneck Island. When I was growing up in Providence in multi-decker houses, [with] no grassy areas and playing stick ball in the streets; it doesn’t compare. We’re blessed. Municipal costs are too much on the residents and to relieve the residents you have to go to the commercial end. You have to continue with the economic development, which is meaningful but not out of control. No one wants a gas station on Indian Avenue [laughs].

What was one of the most prolonged or difficult zoning/land use cases you were called in on? I’m particularly proud of the zoning relief that I obtained to re-build St.

Clare’s Home on Spring Street. That was a torturous process. The zoning board initially turned us down, but I didn’t quit. I’m proud of that, although it was a difficult one to achieve.

How do you keep your Portuguese heritage alive? I’ve been involved with the Portuguese association since the dedication and re-dedication of the monument at Brenton Park… The Portuguese Cultural Foundation, which I was president of, spun off into the Portuguese Discovery Monument. We’ve focused our efforts into maintaining it.

Tell me about an accomplishment that makes you proud. I think it’s probably two-fold. The establishment of the corporate park, because it has a lasting effect on my public service. And then the monument will also have a lasting effect.

How's your golf game? [Laughs] Well, it’s like my physique: it’s growing old gradually! No, it’s great! I mean, what’s a better way to conduct business than three or four hours hitting some golf balls around? I love to play the game.

If you hadn’t become a lawyer/ judge, what would you have liked to pursue? I think I would have liked to have been a sports announcer. I love all sports. I have a background in theater and that’s a part of being a sportscaster, you’re projecting to the public, you’re analyzing the game and participating in something that you can’t believe they’re paying you to do.

Do you think law is harder or easier to get into now than when you first entered the field? I think it’s harder. When you graduate you’re going to find it tough to find a position. That realization, I think, tempers the enthusiasm of people to go into the practice of law.

What's the hardest part about your job as a lawyer? Being able to accomplish what the client wants done. The hardest part at the beginning is to look at someone and say, 'You don’t have a case.' It’s like a doctor who can’t save a patient and they ask themselves, 'Why did I go to medical school if I can’t save this person?' You realize that you’re only an instrument and you can’t do it all.

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