Justice Charles Z. Smith, who rose from the poverty and racism of the Deep South to break ground as Washington’s first African American state trial judge and Supreme Court justice, died Sunday in Seattle. He was 89.
Smith, who worked for more than 50 years as an attorney, was also an associate dean of the University of Washington Law School, where he graduated and later taught, and worked for social justice and human rights causes.
His efforts included a long fight to win reparations for Japanese Americans who were relocated and interred in camps during World War II.
“He was one of the true giants of Washington law,” said Kellye Y. Testy, dean of the UW Law School. “There is not an area where he did not have an influence.”
His death was confirmed Monday by a longtime friend and protégé, state Supreme Court Justice Steven González, who said Smith “encouraged me early on to consider the judiciary as a career” and helped him win seats on the King County Superior Court and the state Supreme Court.
“He was a mentor to hundreds of people of color across the state,” Gonzalez said.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez said he met Smith in 1977 after applying to the UW Law School. He called him a “trailblazer and a hero.”
“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,” he said.
Chalia Stallings-Ala’ilima, president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, whose membership consists of attorneys of color, said Smith “blazed a trail for generations to follow.
“His legacy will live on in those of us who are blessed to blossom in his footsteps,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, who is African American, said Smith will be remembered for his “eloquence and brilliance on the bench. ”
“He has been and always will be a role model of every positive attribute a judge should possess, including humility, graciousness, moral courage and a reputation for fairness,” Jones said.
Smith was born in 1927 in Lakeland, Florida, and grew up in the segregated South. He was the son of a Cuban immigrant father and an African American mother who was the daughter of slaves, according to an oral history he provided to the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the UW.
He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a court reporter, then attended and graduated from Temple University in 1952. A lifelong Baptist, he met and befriended Martin Luther King Jr. while he was living in Philadelphia.
Smith moved to Seattle to be close to his mother and was accepted to the UW Law School without having to take the exam, after an associate dean saw his college transcript.
He graduated in 1955, the only African American in his class, and one of only four at the law school at the time.
“He has been a part of this law school for decades,” Testy said.
Smith was a civil rights activist, but he saw education and integrity — not confrontation — as the key to equality. His biography, “Charles Z. Smith: Trailblazer” on the Secretary of State’s website, called him a “stealthy subversive.”
“Justice Smith will tell you that he was able to open doors — and eventually minds — because his pleasant personality and undeniable ability added up to a ‘safe’ Negro in the 1950s,” one passage reads.
In the oral history, the justice said he wasn’t able to find a law firm to hire him after he graduated from law school, so he became the first African American law clerk at the state Supreme Court, working for Justice Matthew Hill.
He was then hired by the King County Prosecutor’s Office, where he worked until 1960, when he attracted the attention of Robert F. Kennedy, who soon after became U.S. attorney general.
Kennedy hired Smith as a special assistant U.S. attorney in 1961 to help investigate corruption in the Teamsters’ pension fund — the investigation that led to the indictment of Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa.
In 1965, Smith returned to Washington state, where he was appointed the first African American municipal court judge in Seattle.
In 1966, Gov. Dan Evans appointed him to the King County Superior Court bench, breaking another color barrier. In 1973, he stepped down to become a professor and associate dean of the law school.
In 1988, Gov. Booth Gardner chose him from among six candidates to become the state’s first African American Supreme Court justice, calling him a “bright and collegial judge with a strong social conscience.”
His last years on the bench were marred by some controversy, after his law clerk was accused of sexual harassment by a woman who said Smith did not do enough to stop the offensive behavior.
He was forced to retire in 2002 when he reached the high court’s mandatory retirement age of 75, though he fought to stay on.
The next year, he complained that other justices had conspired against him and threatened a “tell-all book” to expose them. The book was never published.