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Tuesday, May 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legal pioneer Justice Charles Z. Smith nears career's end

Seattle Times staff reporter

He does not want to retire.

At age 75, Charles Z. Smith, the state's only African-American Supreme Court justice, remains mentally and physically agile. His nationally recognized work to bring racial diversity to the legal profession and the nation's courts is unfinished.

But the state constitution mandates retirement at age 75. And so in December, Smith will step down.

"Were it not for mandatory retirement," Smith said, "people like me would never leave. We would stay until they carried us out."

Earlier this year, Smith rebuffed suggestions that he resign before his term expired so that Gov. Gary Locke could appoint another minority judge to replace him. The justice said he relishes the intellectual give and take among law clerks and colleagues. To say Smith is widely respected is an understatement. His legion of fans spans generations and, through recent work to promote religious and racial tolerance, international borders.

"He is my hero and one of the world's great human beings," said Vicki Toyohara, a past director of the state's Minority and Justice Commission, which Smith helped found.

By most accounts, Smith will be remembered less for ground-breaking rulings on the Supreme Court than for his work to open doors for women and minorities. Sprawled comfortably in his Temple of Justice office in Olympia, surrounded by the clutter of legal briefs and packing boxes, the justice spoke with elegant diction and a storyteller's flair about a life highlighted by firsts: first minority judge in the state, first to serve on the Seattle Municipal Court, the King County Superior Court and the State Supreme Court, to which he was appointed in 1988 by Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner. He is now the longest-serving justice.

Nationally, Smith has worked to establish commissions in every state to identify and eliminate racial bias from the courts and to educate judges and court personnel about cultural differences.

"He single-handedly launched the national movement to get state courts working together on issues of bias," said Rachel Patrick, staff director for the American Bar Association's Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice in Chicago.

By his own assessment, Smith gained prominence in what had been a closed, white, male legal world in part because he was perceived as "safe." He came of age among a generation of black intellectuals who viewed education and personal integrity, rather than confrontation, as the route to equality. "I never marched, never protested, never wore a dashiki," Smith said. "I was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, and you don't get any more conservative than that."

But Donald Phelps, a former Seattle educator who now heads the community-college leadership program at the University of Texas, said Smith "always spoke out of his experience and knowledge as a member of the black community. The paradox is that if he'd been more of an activist, he would have had less influence."

Smith, a dedicated Baptist who has served as national president of the American Baptist Churches, frames the issue in moral terms: How does the court treat the people who appear before it, particularly those who are disadvantaged by economic circumstances or social prejudice?

"Judges have enormous powers to set the tone in their courtroom by their conduct and by the conduct of their staff," he said. "It's up to them to be aware of underlying prejudices and assumptions and to go deliberately about their work to ensure that every person is treated with respect."

Smith's understanding of racial identity is both personal and complex. His father was a Cuban immigrant who worked as a mechanic; his mother, a cook who was the granddaughter of slaves. He was born in Florida, one of eight children, and grew up in the segregated South.

A bright and promising student, he was singled out by William Gray Jr., then president of Florida Normal College, one of the state's black colleges. Gray enrolled him in the college when Smith was 14. And he took Smith into his own family, where the young man met some of the leading African-American minds and voices of his day. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was a guest in the Grays' house and preached at Gray's church. Smith's mentor was also at the forefront of the emerging civil-rights revolution.

Gray was fired from his college presidency by the Florida state regents for refusing to go along with the practice of denying admission to qualified blacks at Florida's all-white colleges. Smith moved to Philadelphia with the Grays. His college studies at Temple University were interrupted by World War II and a two-year stint in the military.

In 1952, he followed his mother to Seattle, where he enrolled at the University of Washington Law School. He graduated three years later, but no law firm would interview him. Law professors recommended him for a clerkship on the State Supreme Court. He then took a job as a deputy under King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, who Smith said, "hired one lawyer from each ethnic community — Italian, Irish, Greek Jewish and black." In Smith's case, Carroll made an exception. The young attorney would become the second black on the staff.

Smith's prosecution of former Teamster president Dave Beck on state racketeering charges caught the eye of another young lawyer, Robert Kennedy Jr. When Kennedy became U.S. attorney general in 1961, he summoned Smith to Washington, D.C., to serve as one of his special assistants.

Smith returned to Seattle and soon accepted an unsolicited appointment to the Seattle Municipal Court. After a year, Republican Gov. Dan Evans named him to the King County Superior Court bench. President Nixon later offered a federal appointment; Smith declined.

Smith earned a reputation as an innovator who took a personal interest in defendants and offered them a chance to reclaim their lives. He was an early advocate for treating alcoholism and drug use as medical, not criminal, problems.

He also tried to craft sentences to fit individual circumstances.

He now looks back on some of those efforts as misguided. He ordered one welfare mother to get a job and report to the court once a week at 8 a.m. When she was repeatedly late, he bought her an alarm clock.

"That was an offensive thing for me to do. I was wrong, despite my best intentions," he said. The mother was late because she had to get her children to a baby-sitter. And the cost of the baby-sitter meant she had less money working than she had on welfare.

"The structure I provided for her in my middle-class orientation was completely unrealistic."

Smith left the bench in 1983 and for the next 10 years taught at the UW Law School. During that time, he became a familiar face in Puget Sound homes as a commentator for KOMO-TV and radio.

"I had an opinion on everything," he says now with a laugh.

Phelps said Smith was very articulate and widely read. But there was an additional reason KOMO chose him.

"He was a moderate who didn't scare whites," said Phelps. "But he also had credibility with blacks."

Smith is regarded as a centrist on the court, having written more than 200 opinions over the past 14 years. But he has joined with the majority in almost 90 percent of the cases and authored only two dissents, according to court records.

He has taken a largely cautious approach, crafting narrow rulings that rarely expand the law's scope.

"I never felt my role here as being to change the direction of the law," Smith said. "My role is to interpret the present state of the law and to apply it to the facts in the cases before us."

King County Superior Court Judge Richard Jones, who counts himself among the many lawyers Smith has mentored, calls Smith a "silent giant" who worked behind the scenes to open doors for minorities and to raise awareness of the discrimination they faced in the legal system.

"He's been a pioneer in so many different areas," Jones said, adding that Smith has "set a standard of excellence for judges."

Smith has also continued a lifelong commitment to human rights. He participates in international efforts to end ethnic cleansing. And in May 2001, he completed two-year's service on the International Religious Freedom Commission, to which he was appointed by President Clinton.

When the state Supreme Court last year joined the UW Law School in posthumously honoring Takuji Yamashita, a Japanese man who completed law school but was denied admittance to the state bar because of his race, the court asked Smith to speak on its behalf.

Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who calls Smith "the soul of the court," said Smith addressed the large audience, including Yamashita's descendants, without notes.

Describing a brilliant young law student who could not practice his chosen profession because of his race, Smith chose words that echoed the impressive arc of his own career.

"I think it is high time for us, the courts especially, to do what we can to compensate for this historical evil, this historical wrong."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. Lynn Thompson can be reached at 206-464-2922 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.

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