Decorated WW2 Soldier and Small-Town Mayor, Miami Law Alum Peter Palermo Recalls Ascension to Senior Magistrate Judge


Peter Palermo. (Photo: Catharine Skipp/Miami Law) 

There are a few things you ought to know about Peter R. Palermo. A Senior U.S. Magistrate Judge, Palermo was one of the first and now the longest-serving magistrate in the United States, at 42 years and counting. A decorated World War II hero, he fought in North Africa and throughout Italy. And at the cusp of 95 years of age, he remains a sharp dresser, with jet-black matinee-idol eyelashes.

Born in 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pa., he was the fourth child – wedged between five sisters and a brother – of a businessman and a stay-at-home, no-nonsense mother. He tossed enough newspapers to be named the leading newsboy in Pittsburgh at age 11. He excelled in school and graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941. His plans for law school at Dickinson University in Carlisle, Pa., were dashed when events interceded during World War II and he was drafted as a private into the United States Army Air Corps. He would rise in rank to Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, then Major Sergeant, eventually bringing him to Miami Beach for officer candidate school a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to the invasion of North Africa and the liberation of Naples, Italy. For his service and valor, he was awarded the Bronze Star and six Battle Stars.

Recalling his first days in South Florida, Judge Palermo said he was amused by Miami society: "I'm Italian. In Pittsburgh, I was a Yankee. Now, I'm considered an Anglo in Miami. If you went back to Pittsburgh or New York and told them we were Anglos, they would have laughed."

From his days in Miami Beach during the war, he decided the weather was far better than in Pennsylvania and enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law. Never one to stay unengaged, Palermo was later elected the first mayor of tiny, newly incorporated West Miami. "I never ran," he said. "My neighbors were Southern Baptist and Jewish, and they didn't trust each other. So they trusted the poor little Catholic boy. I helped build that town – paid cash for everything. I paid myself a dollar a year and bought my own car and gas." His proudest act as mayor was to shut down the Black Cat, "a den of iniquity," where drunk, passed-out soldiers would get robbed and then dumped across the street in Coral Gables. Palermo was elected three times. He continued to serve as mayor from 1947 to 1953, graduating from Miami Law in 1950. His yearbook photo shows a handsome and smiling young lawyer, ready to spring into the legal world.

He would go on to serve as an Assistant State Attorney before practicing for almost twenty years with his firm, Palermo and Connelly. Judge Palermo would say that he has gotten to where he is today because he can solve any problem. In 1971, he was called upon to help create the magistrate system, to help relieve the backlog in the U.S. District Courts. Today, there are more than 500 United States Magistrate Judges in 89 district courts throughout the U.S.

Judge Palermo has testified before Congress on myriad topics, from extradition to the Bail Reform Act of 1984. He has officiated over the citizenship oaths of more than 600,00 newly minted Americans. But he has never strayed far from his legal beginnings at Miami Law. He is an advisory member for the Center for Ethics and Public Service, a recipient of the Law Alumni Association's Henry Latimer Leadership and Professionalism Award and the Center for Public Service Leadership Award, and is a Phi Alpha Delta. He was also honored with a Legal Legend Award in 2009. In 2011, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his exceptional dedication as a public servant.

Among his other connections to the law school, Karen P. Throckmorton, now an Instructor in Law and director of Miami Law's STREET Law program, once served as his clerk.

In 2003, he established the Peter R. Palermo Fellowship Fund, which has served 18 law students. One of them, Jihan Solima, J.D. '12, said that being a Palermo Fellow was a unique honor. "It allowed me to learn firsthand about the experiences of the youngest mayor of West Miami and its history, as well as a renowned federal magistrate," she said. "It was the greatest and most rewarding experience I had at Miami Law."

Another thing Judge Palermo will tell you about is his prowess as a dancer, as a young man and even now. As he puts it, "Can still do a mean one."