Portrait hanging honors Justice Silsby

Posted Aug. 04, 2010, at 10:35 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:34 a.m.
Herbert T. Silsby II Maine Superior Court Justice from 1977 until 1992. Copy of photograph at the Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth.
Herbert T. Silsby II Maine Superior Court Justice from 1977 until 1992. Copy of photograph at the Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Herbert T. Silsby II’s portrait was hung near his father’s last month in the Hancock County courtroom where they each often presided.

“Now, I’m not a historian like Herb,” Tony Beardsley, president of the Hancock County Bar Association, said at the event held July 22, “but from my readings, I understood that at a public hanging, friends, curiosity seekers and the townspeople would come to see the event and to be reminded of what the hanged person did and to learn a lesson from the event.

“Herb, looking around this room I see many who have learned and benefited for your days as a Superior Court judge,” Beardsley said. “You embrace the qualities of great legal knowledge, judicial temperament — most of the time — litigation experience, common sense and fundamental fairness to all who appeared before you.”

Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court; Kevin Cuddy, the Superior Court justice who presides in Hancock County; attorneys from Down East Maine and Bangor; and members of Silsby’s family attended the brief ceremony, Beardsley said last week when he e-mailed the Bangor Daily News a copy of his remarks.

It is a tradition within the judicial and legal communities to hang painted portraits or photographs of judges in the courtrooms where they presided after they have retired. Silsby’s portrait, a photograph taken in the mid-1970s, is on the same back wall of the courtroom where a similar picture of his father, William Silsby Sr., hangs.

Herbert T. Silsby II, 85, was born in 1925 in Aurora, and moved to Ellsworth when he was a teenager. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1947 and passed the bar after two years of study at Boston University Law School.

His first stint as a judge began when Silsby was 26 and hired to serve as Ellsworth’s municipal judge before the District Court system was created by the Legislature in 1961. Silsby’s salary for presiding in his adopted hometown was $1,000 a year, according to Beardsley.

Silsby spent more than 25 years in private practice with his father and brother, William Silsby Jr., in Hancock County before he was appointed to the Superior Court bench by Gov. James Longley. Although he often presided in Ellsworth, the younger Justice Silsby also frequently traveled to courthouses around the state. He re-tired from the bench in February 1992.

In his final year, Silsby took the unusual step of moving his courtroom outside after a defendant suffered three seizures in Knox County Superior Court in Rockland. On April 1, 1991, Silsby took the courtroom to George Prentiss, then 54, of Thomaston, according to a story previously published in the Bangor Daily News.

Silsby held an arraignment and a sentencing hearing on a gross sexual misconduct charge in the courthouse parking lot, where the defendant sat with family members in the back of a vintage Pontiac LeMans.

As Prestiss pleaded no contest to the charge, his car was surrounded by court officials including the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, court clerk and court reporter. The judge sentenced Prentiss to two years in prison with all his time suspended and three years of probation.

Silsby’s daughter Paula Silsby of Portland recently left the U.S. Attorney’s Office after more than 30 years in that office. She served as U.S. attorney for Maine for the past decade.

“He loved, loved, loved charging juries,” she said of her father’s judicial career last week, “and giving them the principles of law to apply to the evidence. His life on the bench made me very mindful of the role judges play in the process.”

Justice Silsby, who was unavailable to be interviewed, lives with his wife, Ruth Blaisdell Silsby, in Ellsworth.

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