Born: Wednesday, February 23rd, 1927
Birthplace: Lakeland, Florida
Religion: American Baptist
Education: Temple University, B.S. (1952)
University of Washington, J.D. (1955)
Career: Law Clerk (1955)
Deputy Prosecutor (1956-1961)
Special Assistant to U.S. Attorney General (1961-1964)
Municipal Court (1965)
Superior Court (1966-1973)
Law Professor (1973-1983)
Served: Wednesday, July 13th, 1988 to Monday, January 13th, 2003
Political Party: RepublicanGovernor Booth Gardner’s appointment of Charles Z. Smith to the supreme court in the summer of 1988 was unique. First, the Democratic governor crossed over to appoint someone from the opposing party, something rarely done. Second, Judge Smith, an African American, became the first ethnic minority placed on the state’s high court. Gardner hoped that from an expected middle position, Justice Smith could bring the sharply divided court closer together.
Upon his appointment, the new justice stated that he had “a mediator-conciliator type of personality,” and since he knew each of the eight other justices well, he believed he could help in “reestablishing the collegiality of the court.” One news account of the appointment reiterated the need for such a role:
Now, as Governor Booth Gardner’s choice Wednesday as the newest justice of the Supreme Court, [Smith] has the potential to bring a new level of balance and direction to a high court that regularly produces decisions on its toughest cases by a 5-4 margin. The closeness of tough votes has led to concern among some lawyers that the state’s legal system is without a clear sense of direction.
Although his exuberant but pleasant personality indicated he could bridge ideological divisions, his varied experience suggested a strong concern for the unfortunate, underprivileged, and persecuted which would perhaps make him feel more at ease with liberal justices.
Gardner considered six strong candidates to replace Justice William Goodloe, who resigned after serving a little more than three years of his six-year term. Upon leaving, Goodloe recommended to the governor that a minority person, preferably a Democrat from eastern Washington, be selected as his replacement. The governor had no obligation to heed the retiring justice’s advice, but blacks from Washington had served on the federal bench for a number of years and it was clearly past time for them to represent the state’s high bench. A Seattle Republican, Charles Smith may not have been the obvious choice, but his breadth of experience dictated the appointment.
Because of the unwritten rule in the early 1950s that Seattle law firms would not interview, and certainly not hire, a black, Smith had to look for non-traditional employment after receiving his law degree in 1955. Upon the advice of several of his law school professors, Smith applied for a clerkship with state supreme court judges and accepted an appointment with Justice Matthew Hill. The choice proved to be fortunate. Working with Justice Hill at a formative stage of his career left an indelible imprint on the young lawyer. The experience became a continual seminar in the law, ethics, and life, directed by a master teacher. Smith recalled later that “nine months working for Justice Hill … opened up the law to me in a more intense manner than three years of law school.”
In 1956 Smith moved on to the King County Prosecutor’s Office where he distinguished himself by successfully prosecuting labor leader Dave Beck for grand larceny. Because of his knowledge of labor union corruption and the Beck prosecution, U. S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy lured Smith away from his private practice in 1961 to serve as part of a team investigating a case against corruption in the handling of the Teamster Union pension fund. Smith brought an indictment in Chicago against then union president Jimmy Hoffa. Smith, impressed with the integrity, fair play, social consciousness, and intensity of Robert Kennedy, resigned as special assistant in the Justice Department to help Kennedy win his race for the U. S. Senate from New York in 1964. The campaign constituted Smith’s single venture into the rough-and-tumble of a major campaign, although he was familiar with the give-and-take of politics.
Smith had learned his politics in King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll’s office; his Republican affiliation came with that job. He, like every prosecutor in the office, was urged-if not required-to participate in Republican affairs and, of course, to assist in his boss’s reelection. Smith joined the King County Young Men’s Republican Club, chaired Lawyers for Nixon, and delivered numerous speeches for Carroll during the latter’s reelection bid. However, after working in Kennedy’s senate campaign, Smith no longer identified with any political party.
As soon as Smith returned to Seattle in 1965, he accepted an appointment as municipal judge-becoming the first African American to serve on the Seattle court. Governor Daniel Evans appointed him to the superior court a year later, where he served until 1973, again being the first black on the state’s trial court of general jurisdiction. He won unopposed election to both the municipal and superior court benches.
In 1973 the University of Washington School of Law lured Smith away from the bench. He joined the faculty and became a tenured full professor of law and associate dean. He later served as director of clinical programs and instituted an innovative experiential legal program bringing third-year students into courtrooms to expose them to trial practice.
In 1983, with federal funds for the clinical program exhausted and the university unable to pick up the financial slack, Judge Smith took early retirement, but taught part-time in the law school. He later served the university as professor of law emeritus and as a member of the graduate faculty of the School of Social Work. Immediately upon his retirement, Smith joined with an old classmate to form the law firm of Rosenblume, Smith, and Associates in Seattle. Smith was with this firm when Governor Gardner selected him the seventy-eighth justice of the Washington Supreme Court.
Smith’s background and diverse community activities greatly influenced his judging. He was born in Lakeland, Florida, in 1927, the first son in a family with four sons and four daughters. His father, an auto mechanic, was Cuban and his mother, a restaurant chef, an African American. The two separated when Smith was fourteen. But by then the family of William H. Gray, president of Florida Normal College and later president of Florida A & M University, was raising Smith. Smith attended segregated public and private schools before entering the U. S. Army in 1945. He rose to staff sergeant and served as court reporter at Fort Lee, Virginia. Upon return to civilian life in 1946, Smith continued courses at the all-black Florida A & M. When William Gray returned to Philadelphia to take over as pastor of his father’s church, Smith moved too, enrolling at Temple University. In 1952 he graduated with a B.S. degree in business education and a minor in group dynamics. Gray encouraged him to enter law school rather than pursue a graduate degree in social work. As Smith recalled later, Gray told him the “law is a helping profession” and would permit him to reach into social work.
Justice Smith’s public service activities reflect his earlier interest in social work. For example, he was an officer or board member of the Puget Counseling Center, American Cancer Society, Fred M. Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Chong-quing (China) Sister City Association, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Kawabe Memorial House, Seattle Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Minoru Masuda Memorial Committee of the Japanese-American Citizens League. His involvement with church activities was extensive, including serving as president of the American Baptist Churches. He also belonged to Boys Club of Seattle, the King County Commission on Alcoholism, and at least two-dozen other service organizations, all reflecting his societal concerns.
Justice Smith was also very involved in professional activities. A graduate of both the National Judicial College and the Naval Justice School, he served a number of years on the American Bar Association’s standing committee of the federal judiciary, as well as its juvenile justice standards commission and its task force on crime. He also headed the minorities and justice task force created by the legislature to study and suggest remedies for biases in the judicial system. He remained co-chairman of the permanent minorities and justice commission.
All this suggests a person most concerned about the needs of society and the importance of law in meeting those needs. Justice Smith answered those who inquired about his ideology: “I think I am a liberal but my children think I’m conservative.” He refused to be narrowly classified:
I don’t think that intellectually I can be put in anyone’s pigeon hole. I tend to get aboard what people might consider to be liberal policies … but [they] had nothing to do with trying to fit myself into … conservative or liberal [categories] … I give my personal commitment to things that I happen to believe in … If that makes me a liberal, then I’m liberal. On the other hand, because I’m so cautious, if cautious makes me conservative, then I’m a conservative.
Smith preferred to view himself as “humanitarian.” Certainly his balanced, if not ambiguous, ideological view contributed significantly in bringing together his colleagues on the court. However, his perspective regarding the court’s decisional process may prove a hindrance.
Justice Smith regarded the formal phases of court deliberations to be the exclusive means of reaching decisions. The oral arguments and briefs of the attorneys, facts of the case, and the lower court record, mixed with his knowledge of the law, were the factors he regarded as most important to his decision making. The work of his law clerk, the political and social context of the case, and views of his colleagues and the lower court, although to be considered, were secondary in his scale of decisional factors. Individual preparation and formal interchange among justices at post-hearing conferences constituted Justice Smith’s means of convincing his colleagues of his viewpoint:
I find that the formal around-the-table conference process is the most valuable avenue of communication. I think I would resent … lobbying a position … When I vote I have reached a firm conclusion based upon what I have read, what I have heard, and what I have reasoned, and it would take a great deal for me to flip because someone crafted a language a certain way [in a draft opinion].
Smith’s voting record indicates an effort to bring the high bench together. He participated in 179 cases from his appointment until May 31, 1990. He wrote twenty-five opinions, of which eighteen were unanimous. This unanimous percentage far exceeded that of the full court.
Justice Smith tended to provide the swing vote in many split decisions, and he clearly was reluctant to dissent from a well-reasoned opinion. He refused to accept the majority’s view in only two cases, one of which constituted his only written dissent. He cast a concurring vote in only two cases.
Justice Smith and Eleanor Martinez married in 1955. They had met when she moved to Seattle for her first teaching assignment, from which she has since retired. The Smiths had four children: Carlos, Michael, Stephen, and Felicia. When the children lived at home, weekend camping trips were a frequent family activity. A few weeks in Hawaii to visit family – Mrs. Smith was born on the islands – permitted the justice to briefly escape his busy civic and court schedule.
Smith’s oral history interview is in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see “Profile,” De Novo, vol. 3 (1989), p. 13; and “Man of Faith, Man of Justice,” Decision Magazine (Sept. 1991).
The preceding biography is from Charles Sheldon's The Washington High Bench: A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991, © 1992 by the Board of Regents of Washington State University. Reprinted here with permission and licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License by The Temple of Justice Project.