By Tal Lifshitz & Erica Zaron
Hon. Roy K. Altman. Photo credit: Daniel Portnoy Photography
“History is the Narrative of People Searching for a Place to Go.” Judge Altman is a man in the midst of a journey, one defined by the rich experiences and tribulations of his ancestors. His family, of Eastern European Jewish heritage, began their search for where to go nearly 100 years ago. Exiled from a part of the former Soviet Union to Siberia, Judge Altman’s paternal grandparents eventually made their way to Venezuela, where they flourished despite the unfamiliar language and culture. His maternal grandparents left Poland in the 1930s and started their own life in Mexico before moving to Israel when Judge Altman’s mother was a teenager. Fortuitously, Judge Altman’s father had also moved to Israel to join the Israeli Air Force, and while in the Jewish homeland, the two met and married. The pair eventually returned to Venezuela, which is where Judge Altman was born. With one more journey in mind, Judge Altman’s parents left behind their way of life, friends, and family and relocated to the United States, destined to introduce him and his sister to a land where freedom was a value people were willing to die for. The familial search for a free life bounded only by a common commitment to the rule of law not only shapes who Judge Altman is today, but also provides a framework that will surely guide him to prominence as a jurist in this community for years to come.
A judge of few years but wide experience, Judge Altman brings a unique perspective to the bench. He is the first non-judge appointee to the Southern District since Kathleen Williams in 2011, having last worked for the litigation boutique Podhurst Orseck, P.A. Judge Altman handled a variety of cases at Podhurst, but specialized in representing victims of high-profile airline crashes. His recent experience in the private sector brings to the bench a welcome perspective on the complexities attendant to commercial litigation.
But he is perhaps best-known for his star turn as an assistant United States Attorney from 2008 until 2014. In addition to the usual repertoire of complex trials and appeals, during his years as a federal prosecutor Judge Altman developed a focus on the reduction of violent crime in the community. In 2011, then-United States Attorney Wifredo Ferrer tapped Judge Altman to initiate the Violence Reduction Partnership program for the entire Southern District. Originally focused on the Overtown area of Miami, which at the time accounted for twenty percent of all homicides in the county, Judge Altman used the VRP project to dive deeper into reducing crime in that underserved neighborhood. He worked with federal agents manning wire rooms and interfaced with local law enforcement in efforts that eventually led to the arrest of more than fifty of Overtown’s most violent offenders. Judge Altman tried many of those cases in federal court. But the project was not limited to securing prosecutions only. Judge Altman became the face of the prosecutor’s office in meetings with community leaders and students from local schools as part of an overall effort to involve the community in identifying areas where law enforcement could provide assistance. In 2014, Judge Altman expanded the program to Liberty City, Little Haiti, and Miami Gardens. During this time frame he also served as the Violent Crime and Anti-Gang Coordinator, placing him at the head of an inter-agency task force of local and federal law enforcement agents devoted to arresting the most violent criminals in South Florida.
As for his most impactful case as a prosecutor, Judge Altman invokes United States v. Flanders, which arose out of a multi-state investigation of two men who had lured women from all over the world to South Florida, and then drugged and raped them. The perpetrators videotaped the rapes and then sold the footage over the internet and at pornography stores. After Judge Altman delivered the closing argument on behalf of the Government, the jury entered a guilty verdict on every count in the indictment. Judge Altman still remembers standing for the verdict, hearing the “guilty, guilty, guilty” from the jury, and feeling the goosebumps on his arms as he soaked in the gravity of the moment. To this day, he keeps in touch with the victims, exchanging letters, and talking about their lives and their plans.
Indeed, Judge Altman’s trial skills are legendary. During cross-examination of a criminal defendant in a sex-trafficking case, the witness reportedly became so angry that he called Judge Altman “an evil dude.” His closing arguments have their own reputation for greatness. About Judge Altman, Judge Altonaga once told a Podhurst partner that she had “never seen a lawyer conduct an effective hour-long closing argument without a single note in front of him.” Judge Altonaga is not alone in her praise of Judge Altman. Judge Marcus described him as “a terrific law clerk,” a “spectacular trial lawyer,” and a man who “loves the idea of justice and the idea of law.” The feeling between judge and former law clerk is mutual. Judge Altman credits Judge Marcus as teaching him more about law and lawyering, fairness, justice, and public service than anyone else in his life. Judge Marcus’ devotion to the higher calling of responsibly, fairly, and impartially applying the law guides Judge Altman’s own hand as a judge today. The other great influence in Judge Altman’s life is his wife, Dr. Rachel Silverstein, who inspires him daily with her own selfless commitment to improving the lives of those around her through her work running one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in South Florida.
As you will often hear from district judges, obtaining the elusive presidential appointment requires equal parts intellect, grit, integrity, and luck. Judge Altman has been gifted with each throughout his life. He is a perfectionist with an unmatched work ethic that he credits to an acknowledgment for what his ancestors endured in their quest for a better life. He is devoted to public service, having abandoned a private sector future that knew no limits, and lectures regularly on the value of public service to law students and young lawyers. He has had his eye on fairness throughout his career as a lawyer, even when dealing with opposing counsel as a civil litigator.
What he adds, though, is a variety of background interests that impart a relatability to his temperament. Judge Altman was a two-sport high school phenom at the Miami Country Day School, FBA South Florida Chapter Newsletter and then went to start at quarterback and as pitcher for the football and baseball teams at Columbia University. He then attended Yale Law School and served as an editor for the Yale Law Journal.
While he grew up a New York Yankees’ fan (because that was the only team his father could listen to on the radio in Venezuela), he otherwise stays loyal to Miami sports including the Dolphins, Heat, and Hurricanes for all college athletics — with the caveat that he’ll root for his undergraduate alma mater, Columbia, over the Canes.
He is a voracious reader and an avid fan of history, particularly American history, no doubt borne from his parents’ reverence for this nation’s legacy of democracy. He especially enjoys biographies of the great American presidents and historical figures, having recently finished works on Oliver Wendell Homes, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
When asked to identify his favorite reads, Judge Altman points to The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky as his choice for fiction; and a tie between The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, and Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael Oren as his choices for nonfiction. In discussing Oren’s work, Judge Altman also notes his longtime passion for, and commitment to, the Jewish State of Israel. He makes time for film too, with great appreciation for the Hollywood epics and blockbusters. He lists Glory, Amadeus, Braveheart, Good Will Hunting, and the Godfather as some of his favorites.
The job of district judge has been everything Judge Altman expected and more. On the “more” side, he has been exceedingly touched by the naturalization ceremonies at which he has the privilege to talk about his favorite subject, the freedom bestowed on American citizens by our great Constitution. While the ceremonies always fill his courtroom, Judge Altman makes sure to ask three attendees to give their stories. And he concludes the ceremony with his own story, pointing out how the child of anyone in that room could go on to sit in his very chair one day. Indeed, Judge Altman stands in the middle of his own rich narrative, continuing a piece of history that stretches from his ancestors to where he is now, and ahead to his very bright future. We are lucky as practitioners in the Southern District to have his astute leadership on the bench.
This article is featured in our March 2021 Newsletter.