Alberta Court of King’s Bench Justice Lisa Silver: A case study in the magic of community

Alberta Court of King’s Bench Justice Lisa Silver was publicly sworn in at the Calgary Courts on Thursday, September 14. Photo by Monique de St-Croix.

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – It was a proud moment for family, friends and members of the legal and Jewish communities when Court of King’s Bench of Alberta Justice Lisa Silver was publicly sworn in at the Calgary Courts on Thursday, September 14, the day before Rosh Hashanah.

Alberta Court of King’s Bench Justice Lisa Silver. Photo by Monique de St-Croix

Welcomed by Chief Justice of the Alberta Court of Appeal Ritu Khullar, those in attendance enjoyed meaningful, warm, poignant and humorous addresses by Alberta Court of King’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau; Robert Bassett, Vice President of the Alberta Branch, Canadian Bar Association; Stacy Petriuk on behalf of the Law Society of Alberta; and Aaron Bickman on behalf of the Calgary Bar Association. During the ceremony, Silver recited the oath of allegiance and oaths of office, later delivering a moving address focussed on her passion for the law, respect for colleagues, love for family and friends, and deep appreciation for the individuals and Jewish communal institutions that instilled in her a passion for human rights, the legal profession, and voluntarism within and beyond the Jewish community.

Fittingly, the ceremony took place in Courtroom 1801.

When AJNews spoke to Justice Silver ahead of her public swearing in ceremony, what emerged was a sweet love song to family and community.

Lisa Silver was working at her computer on an article she was writing with two colleagues when her phone rang on Sunday, April 23.

Then-Justice Minister and Attorney General, the Honourable David Lametti was on the other end of the phone with great news. The Order in Council appointing Silver to the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta had been signed two days before.

Justice Silver was privately sworn in on May 4 so that she could begin hearing cases.

Lisa Silver entered into the detailed and rigorous judicial application process approximately two years ago, subsequently receiving word that she had made it through the committee process. It was music to the ears of her husband and fellow criminal lawyer Markham Silver who, at the time, was battling cancer.

Sadly, Markham Silver, QC—who shared his beshert’s passion for the law and community building—did not live long enough to celebrate her remarkable achievement.

“The nice thing was he knew. The sad thing was he wasn’t here when they made the announcement,” Justice Silver told AJNews.

Her journey as a judge began with four weeks of shadowing colleagues. She attended an education conference that took place just after her appointment and plunged into study.

“Once you start sitting you have to do a lot of reading and figuring out what to do,” Justice Silver told AJNews.

“For about 18 weeks you’re on rotations as a new judge,” said Silver, adding that those rotations include civil, family and criminal law.

“As a professor, I wrote a lot of blogs which were mostly analysis of cases,” said Silver, who is skilled at swiftly synthesizing a great deal of information.

Her blogging and podcasting days are behind her now, as is her cherished role as an associate professor at the University of Calgary, but Justice Silver—among the first to be appointed to the Court of King’s Bench following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II— clearly relishes her new role.

She misses her former interactions with colleagues and students, but is coming together with them in new ways. Justice Silver has officiated calls to the bar, and some former students have already come before her in court. One court clerk is a former student dating back to Justice Silver’s time at Mount Royal University.

Fortunately for her peers, Justice Silver plans to continue participating in judicial education, which has been a big part of her non-traditional yet stellar path to the bench.

She told AJNews that, in some ways, her new calling is similar to the work she did in academia.

“As a professor, you are part of a team, but you are independent,” Justice Silver said.

A fierce advocate for public education about the legal system, Justice Silver says that she has joined a “welcoming bench,” where she can email, text or call any of the judges with questions.

“It’s very collegial. You definitely have the opportunity to ask questions, and I have, but, in the end, when you are in chambers…you have to have the ability to make decisions, and I find that I have that ability.”

“You wrestle with the evidence,” says Justice Silver, ever mindful that she is dealing with people’s lives.

“You’ve got the law and the tests that you apply, but it takes reasoning, it takes deliberation, consideration. You’ve got to be thoughtful, but in the end you need to come to a decision.”

Justice Silver says that the will to see justice done and the skills that brought her to the practice of law and now the bench have their genesis in her Jewish upbringing.

That, of course, took a village.

Justice Silver refers to the Calgary Talmud Torah (now The Calgary Jewish Academy/CJA), Camp B’nai Brith (now BB-Riback) and B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) as the “triple threat,” that led her to where she is today.

She exudes gratitude for her late parents, Morris and Minnie Kowall, “good people” who showed her the way. Both were very involved in community, and Silver is thankful her parents sent her to Talmud Torah, where she was one of only 10 classmates that remained through Grade 9.

While parents sometimes consider small junior high class sizes a deterrent, Silver’s trajectory (and, according to her, those of her also-successful classmates) suggests otherwise.

“It was amazing,” recalls Silver. “It was the best…. They gave us time to be with ourselves and each other and to be creative.”

“The skills I use as a judge, I learned there…. The school gave us some freedom. We had a small class and really good teachers,” recalled Justice Silver, among them Mrs. Miller (math), Mrs. Lysing (social studies) and Mr. Alima (Jewish studies). She also fondly recalls former principals, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Sherman.

“The skills I use as a judge, I learned [within the community]. Calgary Hebrew School [now CJA] gave us some freedom. We had a small class and some really good teachers.

“School, BBYO and Camp BB [Riback] turned me into a leader…and into someone who cares about the community. What I am doing is because of a duty I feel towards my community…. My Jewish upbringing and the organizations that I was involved with did that for me.

“BBYO is such a magical organization for a young person. It really opened my eyes to social justice issues and to my identity as a Jewish woman.”

Rising rapidly to leadership positions in BBYO during her teens in the 1970s, Lisa Kowall—as she was then known—won an MIT (Member in Training) Award and served as treasurer of her Daughters of the Star chapter, eventually serving in multiple other executive positions including the presidencies of both DOTS and the Northwest Canada Region.

Kowall spent summers at Camp BB between the ages of nine and 21, eventually working as a counsellor and co-coordinating the inaugural Leadership Training Program (LTP) together with Edmontonian Jerry Sorokin. She later served on the admin staff, eventually becoming the camp’s assistant director.

Camp BB Directors Bill Meloff, OBM, and Rivvy Meloff were role models to Silver—and to an entire generation of campers— as was head staffer Medina Shatz, who remains a lifelong friend. (Notably, Shatz, also a lawyer, was appointed to the King’s Counsel just prior to Silver’s September 14 swearing in ceremony.)

“Taking on leadership positions in BBYO and camp, and those positions being valued by your peers at the time, is huge. It confirms your identity as a Jewish person, but it also tells you: I am a leader. I can do things for the community, and I get what needs to be done.”

After graduating from Henry Wise Wood High School and a year of general studies at the U of C, Silver earned a degree in economics at the University of Western Ontario and then her LL.B at Osgoode Hall. She later practiced criminal law with legendary criminal lawyers Brian Greenspan and David Humphrey for a decade—arguing cases all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada— before she returned to Calgary in 1998 with Markham and their children, Josh and Rebecca.

Silver immediately circled back to the organizations that had helped to raise her, first serving on the board of Camp BB and, eventually, succeeding Edmontonian (and former Calgarian) Howie Sniderman as board chair.

Silver did some committee work at The Calgary Jewish Academy, later sitting on the board of directors where she served as vice president (external) and then president in the mid-2000s. She later served on the parent advisory board for BBYO.

By then, Silver had earned her Master of Laws at the U of C, worked part-time as a Justice of the Peace and as a part-time instructor at Mount University and had established her own legal research and writing firm. She joined the U of C Faculty of Law as an instructor in 2016, becoming an assistant professor in 2018 and then an associate professor in 2021.

Amazingly, despite her very busy professional and academic life, Silver continued to support multiple Jewish organizations including Beth Tzedec Synagogue and the United Jewish Appeal, where she co-chaired the women’s Lion of Judah division together with Raechelle Paperny.

“Nothing I’ve done has been alone,” Justice Silver told AJNews, paying tribute to mentors, colleagues, classmates, students and fellow volunteers too numerous to mention.

“Nothing I’ve done has been alone. Even when you are in leadership, you don’t pull people behind you, you’re behind the people.

“You learn how to listen to people and build consensus. That’s the skill set that you learn. It is vital to those who serve on the bench.”

Justice Silver’s daughter Rebecca has followed in the footsteps of her parents and her paternal grandfather, Louis B. Silver QC, having been called to the Bar of Upper Canada this past June. Rebecca’s husband Aiden Raff is also studying law. Son Josh Silver opted for architecture; he is currently working on his Ph.D and teaching at the University of Manchester in England.

According to Justice Silver, her Jewish leadership roles within the Jewish community naturally led to those she took on in the legal community.

“Because of the experience I had on boards and committees with the Jewish community, I felt I had some expertise and wanted to help the entire community.”

Examples abound. Beginning in her first year of law school, Silver became active in the Community Legal Aid Services Program (CLASP), providing legal assistance to low-income people.

That is how she met her husband, who had graduated four years ahead of her.

After that first summer, she became the Criminal Division leader and later the chair of CLASP.

“If it matters to you, you put your feelings in action. This is a very Jewish precept. You don’t just talk about kindness….You do an active kindness.”

Reflecting further on the value of tikkun olam (repairing the world), she explained, “It’s the action. You don’t have to do big acts, but you have to act.”

In Calgary, Silver served on a Legal Aid appeals committee for a number of years and helped a local coalition against human trafficking write their bylaws. She served on a Law Society Lawyer Competence Committee and on the Criminal Justice Committee of the Canadian Bar Association.

In 2012, Silver was appointed as a Police Commissioner, eventually serving as vice chair. Along the way she chaired the Police Commission’s public complaints committee and even served as acting public complaints director during a period of transition.

Many high profile issues emerged during Silver’s tenure on the Police Commission including gender issues, a topic she addressed at a Women in Policing conference held in Calgary.

For Silver it is a “no brainer” to give back to the community that welcomed her Polish immigrant grandparents and their extended family when they settled in Calgary in the 1920s, after being sponsored by “the Meema,” Bella Singer, a fondly remembered community matriarch who worked hard to bring many family members from Radom, Poland to Calgary in the decades prior to the Holocaust.

Proudly sharing a photo of her maternal grandfather Sam Fishman in his shop—where he eventually made cowboy boots—Justice Silver spoke about how hard both her grandfather and grandmother worked, the latter becoming a businesswoman in her own rite, casting a mold for the strong women that followed.

Justice Silver takes pride in giving back to the greater community that gave her grandparents the opportunity to build a new life in Calgary.

“That’s one of the reasons I went into criminal law. To me, being a lawyer was providing a service, and I believed that everyone had a right to have…their voice represented, because that’s what you are doing, you are speaking on behalf of a client.

“There’s the social justice that BBYO taught me, that innate sense of fairness and justice.”

Citing the text that describes Talmudic analysis in the Shachrit (morning) prayer service, Justice Silver told AJNews, “…  That is statutory interpretation. Those are the rules.” In one of her many blogs she references Talmudic analysis and interpretation as an exemplar.

“My career was built on my Jewish identity. Criminal law is also about community. It’s about people….They all deserve respect and a fair hearing. That’s the bottom line.”

Her multifaceted journey as a legal professional and a professional volunteer has well prepared Justice Lisa Silver for an exciting new chapter as a member of the judiciary.

She told those gathered in her honour on September 14, “I am here because of you, and I am here for you.”

Did you know?

The April announcement of Justice Lisa Silver’s appointment to the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta came just a few days prior to the swearing out of Justice Marina Paperny from the Alberta Court of Appeal on April 26. Justice Paperny was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2001 after serving five years on the Court of Queen’s Bench. Mazel tov and yishar kochech to Justice Paperny on her distinguished service.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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