Lawyers Journal

A personal reflection of the impact of the late Justice Smith

Authors often advise, "Just start writing. The organization will come later." But where does one begin writing about a giant in the legal community?

I clerked for Justice Kent B. Smith at the Massachusetts Appeals Court from 2000 to 2003. During my fourth year, he helped me get promoted to my current position at the court. After that, even though I did not work for him exclusively, he remained a mentor and a colleague to me until the day he passed away.

To describe how the late Judge Smith was a mentor is a little like trying to write about how he breathed -- it just was part of who he was. He always was teaching, always gently instructing, I think he mentored everyone at the court in one way or another.

Let me elaborate. I often sought out Judge Smith to discuss professional issues and ask for advice. Aside from providing such advise, he taught by example. I admired the way he handled the attorneys at appellate arguments, listening to them, challenging those that needed it, and, often, rolling his chair back to the book stacks behind the bench to confirm the holding of a cited case. Judge Smith would not belittle attorneys who came to the Appeals Court zealously advocating for their clients, no matter how strained or excessive the arguments were. He often was one of the smartest people in the courtroom, though he was far too polite to act as if he was. His guidance limitless, he also lectured extensively at judges' conferences, updating the trial judges on the appellate case law of criminal practice and procedure.

Before his appointment to the Appeals Court, Judge Smith served on the Superior Court bench. He did not speak with me frequently of those years, but others have shared with me that he was a kind and compassionate judge who had an innate ability to defuse tense situations with his good nature and respectful humor. Lawyers tell me now that, even in sentencing, Judge Smith could spot those who merited leniency -- and most of those went on to lead law-abiding lives after completing their sentences. The anecdotes are decades old, but they still describe the same Judge Smith that I knew.

Over the years since I began at the Appeals Court, lawyers who practice criminal appeals have said that they loved appearing before Judge Smith because, in their words, "He gets it." To a judge, there is no better compliment and it suited Judge Smith. I would reply, "Of course he does," because, of course, he did. He was Judge Smith. He wrote the book. Literally. His Criminal Practice and Procedure volumes of the Massachusetts Practice Series, are, and will continue to be, required reading for criminal lawyers and a bench book for judges.

Judge Smith still will be a mentor to me, even now that he is only here in spirit. His passing is not an ending; I could not possibly forget this gentleman of a judge with an unbounded joy for living and working. His books sit prominently on my bookshelves, some pages more dog-eared than others. They are but one reminder of the judge who decided prominent cases, but also influenced, mentored and taught his colleagues at the Massachusetts 
Appeals Court.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association