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Lawyer’s first case to make headlines caused ‘uproar’ in courtroom

As a young lawyer 50 years ago, Stanley Silverman would regularly take court appointments, representing destitute defendants in the days before the public defender’s office.

“You were flattered,” Silverman said. “A judge is trusting me to represent someone. I was nervous.”

Silverman would visit clients in jail in the days before the trial. Most of the cases were minor thefts with little doubt about the defendant’s guilt.

“The best thing you could do was to say, ‘He was a kind person,’ or that he had a good work background,” he said.

One of Silverman’s clients, a “rogue and vagabond,” told the lawyer he had worked for Thomas Plumbing and Heating. The night before the trial, the man asked Silverman who would be hearing the case on the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. Silverman said it was Judge Joseph L. Carter, whose reputation for harsh sentences is even noted in his Maryland State Archives biography.

Silverman had never heard one of his court-appointed clients ask about a judge before, but he thought little of it. The next day, Silverman worked out a plea deal for his client in Carter’s courtroom. Silverman mentioned his client’s good employment record, including at Thomas Plumbing, as part of the proceedings. The client accepted the plea deal, which included little time in jail, and was so happy “he wanted to give me a cigar,” Silverman said.

Silverman, too, was happy as he walked back to his office a few blocks from the courthouse. Then the phone rang. It was Carter’s office; the judge wanted to see him in chambers.

Silverman nervously returned to the courthouse, where Carter noted defendant’s employment at Thomas Plumbing.

“I want you to know this company did work in my house, and therefore I am obligated to tell him he has a right to be tried by another judge,” Carter said, adding he wanted the client not to confer with Silverman.

The defendant returned to the courtroom and looked over at a helpless Silverman.

“Nine out of 10 defendants, they might be strong outside the courtroom, but they’re very timid in the courtroom,” said Silverman, of Silverman & Silverman in Dundalk.

Carter disclosed his connection to Thomas Plumbing and asked the defendant if he wanted a new trial. The defendant declined the judge’s offer.

“Now, we’re finished, I’m breathing again,” Silverman said.

Until the defendant said he had a question for Carter. If he said the wrong thing, Silverman thought, he could be looking at a sentence far harsher than the plea deal.

“Judge, I’m really concerned,” the man said. “Does your cellar still leak?”

There was an “uproar” in the courtroom, Silverman recalled.

The next day, Silverman’s phone was ringing off the hook. The lawyers calling told him to check the newspaper. A reporter had been in the courtroom and wrote about the case. “Does your cellar still leak?” was Silverman’s first headlining case.

“The established lawyers said if the judge’s cellar still leaked, he would’ve gotten 10 years,” Silverman said.