SEATTLE — Charles Z. Smith, Washington state’s first black Superior Court judge and state Supreme Court justice, has died at 89.
In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee credited Smith’s “illustrious pursuit of the law,” saying he demonstrated his commitment to justice as he prosecuted public corruption and broke the state Supreme Court’s color barrier.
Smith died Sunday in Seattle, The Seattle Times reported (http://goo.gl/tVLalO ).
Born into a world of poverty and segregation in Florida, Smith served as a court reporter in the Army during World War II and was admitted to the University of Washington Law School without having to take the exam after an associate dean saw his college transcript.
He went on to work for more than 50 years as a lawyer and judge.
Gov. Booth Gardner appointed Smith to a vacancy on the Washington Supreme Court in 1988. But it wasn’t the first time Smith had been offered a seat on the high court.
As Smith recalled for an oral history for the Washington State Heritage Project in 2008, Gov. John Spellman tried to appoint him in 1981, but he declined because he was just starting out in private practice after having spent 10 years as an associate dean of the UW Law School.
In the oral history, Smith described himself as “arrogant” enough not to be embittered by the hurdles racism posed.
“I always thought I was bright. I did a lot of reading. Nothing bothered me,” he said. “The fact that I could not drink from a white water fountain didn’t bother me because I didn’t need the water.”
Current U.S. District Judges Ricardo Martinez and Richard Jones were among Smith’s students at the university.
“He became a mentor to me after I graduated, and we had many discussions on living life as a young lawyer of color in a profession that lacked diversity,” Martinez said. “We have lost a great individual, an incredible jurist and a wonderful man with a strong sense of social justice, who worked so very hard to make his community a better place for all.”
Smith moved to Seattle to be close to his mother after graduating from Temple University. He graduated from UW Law in 1955, the only African American in his class, and one of only four at the law school at the time.
Smith said he wasn’t able to find a law firm willing to hire him, so he became the first black law clerk at the state Supreme Court, working for Justice Matthew Hill.
“I wouldn’t have thought of it in terms of black and white,” he said. “I thought of it in terms of an opportunity to work in my profession.”
He went on to work for the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Seattle, where he prosecuted former Teamsters President Dave Beck. That garnered him the attention of Robert Kennedy, who soon became U.S. attorney general and hired Smith in 1961 to help investigate corruption in the Teamsters’ pension fund — the investigation that led to the indictment of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, whom Smith also prosecuted.
Smith later worked on Kennedy’s Senate campaign then returned to Washington state in 1965. The following year, Gov. Dan Evans appointed him to the King County Superior Court.
He retired in 2002, when he reached the high court’s mandatory retirement age of 75. Some of his years on the bench were marred by controversy after one of his law clerks was accused of sexually harassing a woman who said the justice did not do enough to stop it.
Smith is survived by his wife of 61 years, Eleanor M. Smith; children Carlos Smith, Michael Smith, Stephen Smith and Felicia Gittleman; six grandchildren and four siblings.
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com