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Charles Z. Smith: Trailblazer

The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice...
- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr
Judge Charles Z. Smith on the King County Superior Court, 1969
Judge Charles Z. Smith on the King County Superior Court, 1969
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Charles Z. Smith, the first and so far only ethnic minority to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court, is comfortable in his skin. He was born in the segregated South in 1927, the son of a Cuban auto mechanic and a restaurant cook whose grandparents were slaves. Smith seldom sees things as black and white, and he's rarely judgmental. Being on the right side of justice and doing exemplary work have always mattered more to him than being first. When he was named to the Supreme Court in 1988, Smith said, "There is no feeling of a sense of history, but I may be a role model" for others to follow.

In a public service career that's approaching the 55-year mark, Charles Zellender Smith has in fact been a role model to thousands - as a corruption-fighting prosecutor, thoughtful judge, law school professor and dean; television and radio commentator; human rights activist; champion of minorities and women in the legal system; big brother to youth at risk; national church leader; internationally known voice for tolerance; patron of the arts; self-described "flag-waving patriot"; military officer; devoted husband, proud father and doting grandfather to children whose Jewish and Japanese genes broaden the roots of the Smith family tree.

Even his last name seems to fit the American dream. "Smith" is everyman, and in 21st century America there's new evidence that every man - and woman - has a chance to be somebody. The ceiling of aspirations has been raised dramatically.

A handsome man with a lovely smile, perfect diction and impeccable manners, Justice Smith accuses himself of arrogance because for as long as he can remember he's felt "as smart as anyone" he's ever met. The record of the past 82 years offers evidence that the judge is guilty only of telling the truth.

Smith's life has been punctuated with satisfying work, good fortune and firsts. In 1955, he became the first person of color to clerk for a Washington Supreme Court justice; in 1965, he became the first African-American to serve as a Seattle municipal court judge; and in 1966, when Gov. Dan Evans named him to the King County Superior Court bench, he broke yet another color barrier. In 1973 he joined the faculty of the University of Washington Law School as a full professor and associate dean - once again a trailblazer.

Then in 1988, Gov. Booth Gardner, a Democrat, chose Smith from six candidates to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Commentators noted that Smith had been a Republican when he was with the King County Prosecutor's Office in the 1950s. In fact, you had to join the party if you wanted to work for Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, Mr. Republican in King County. In any case, none of that mattered to Gardner. He wanted to name a minority justice, and in Smith he also saw "a bright and collegial judge with a strong social conscience." He was also impressed that Smith had been a star in the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Dave Beck, left, and Jimmy Hoffa, his
                              successor as president of the Teamsters Union. Charles Z. Smith headed the teams
                              that prosecuted both on charges of misuse of union funds. Attorney General Robert
                              F. Kennedy said Smith did, "A fantastically good job." Dave Beck, left, and Jimmy Hoffa, his successor as president of the Teamsters Union. Charles Z. Smith headed the teams that prosecuted both on charges of misuse of union funds. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said Smith did, "A fantastically good job."

Smith came to Bobby Kennedy's attention in 1957 when Kennedy was chief counsel for the celebrated Senate racketeering committee. Smith was the young King County deputy prosecutor who designed the case that toppled Teamsters president Dave Beck for grand larceny. "Every time the defense tried a new line of attack, Charlie reached into his briefcase for the answer," a Kennedy aide recalled. "He always had one. He anticipated every move."

With Beck's successor, Jimmy Hoffa, in his sights in 1961, Kennedy plucked Smith from Seattle to lead a team of five Justice Department lawyers - the "Get Hoffa Squad." They painstakingly built a case against Hoffa for playing fast and loose with Teamster pension funds.

"Charlie Smith was one of the key figures in this case. He simply does a fantastically good job," Kennedy told The Seattle Times in 1964. The story declared that "In the past seven years, Charles Z. Smith, a 37-year-old Negro attorney who once had trouble finding work in Seattle, has knocked off Mr. Big not once, but twice." The headline said, "Law-conqueror of Hoffa, Beck to return to Seattle practice."

Instead of private practice, Smith became a "tough but enlightened" judge who spoke out eloquently on the folly of prejudice and pushed innovative ideas to monitor and rehabilitate criminals. One of his last acts on the Superior Court bench before joining the UW Law School faculty was to appoint a committee to oversee a trust fund to help former prostitutes attend college or obtain other training. As a condition of probation, Smith once ordered a pimp to pay $1,500 he had received from a prostitute to help establish the scholarship fund.

In a widely reprinted 1967 keynote speech to a Seattle Human Rights Commission conference for high school students, Judge Smith, who also claims some Cherokee in his gene pool, talked about the American melting pot: "It is most tragic and unfortunate that American scholars - particularly our historians and general textbook writers - have over the years participated in a colossal hoax upon history and society by pretending … that the growth of our great United States of America is due solely to the industry, intelligence, perseverance and strength of the American of Anglo-Saxon or other European stock. This has influenced generations of Americans to believe that the strongest, most beautiful, most intelligent and perfect people in the world are Caucasian Americans who speak the English language and who most generally practice the Protestant religion. The unreality of this belief is established by the fact that the fabric of our great nation is woven of people of many races, religions and nationalities, and that individuals from each group have contributed in like measure to the development of our democratic society. … We pay a high price for our prejudices in perpetuating our American myths."

Twenty-one years after that speech and countless others, Smith stood for civility as much as civil rights. Gov. Gardner believed he had "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," according to one news account of Smith's appointment to the Supreme Court. Among the five other finalists Gardner interviewed was another African-American, Carl Maxey, a flamboyant civil rights leader from Spokane. Maxey doubtless would have been a lightning rod on the court. Gardner wanted a conciliator.

"Smith was probably the perfect guy to break the color barrier," says Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who served on the high court with Smith for eight years. "He's really a remarkable man."

Alexander, a masterful extemporaneous speaker himself, marvels at Smith's ability to speak so eloquently, seemingly at the drop of a hat. "He does it without notes. I think he has almost a photographic memory."

Imbued from early childhood with self-confidence and a keen intellect, Smith became the teenage protégé of a brilliant young psychologist and clergyman, William H. Gray Jr., who was president of Florida A&M University. Smith moved in with the Gray family and began college at 15. The atmosphere in the Gray household set extraordinary self-expectations for Smith and his foster siblings, one of whom, William H. Gray III, became a leading member of Congress and in 1991 president of the United Negro College Fund. They are close to this day and consider themselves brothers. Dr. Gray's influence on young Smith was profound, but the future judge also had a powerful role model in his mother, Eva Love Smith. She insisted that her children not use slang, drawl or drop their g's. Justice Smith's elegant diction and exceptionally clear manner of speaking are among his most striking personal traits. That and his smile, which can light up a room and put one immediately at ease. Such was his personality that his schoolmates were proud of his specialness, not resentful.

Staff Sergeant Charles Z. Smith at Camp
                              Lee, Virginia in 1946. Smith joined the Army against the wishes of his mentor, Dr.
                              William H. Gray Jr. in a rare act of rebellion. Staff Sergeant Charles Z. Smith at Camp Lee, Virginia in 1946. Smith joined the Army against the wishes of his mentor, Dr. William H. Gray Jr. in a rare act of rebellion.

Nevertheless, young Smith felt his life was too scripted. He rebelled against his mentor to join the Army at 18 during World War II and rose to staff sergeant within a year. Smith was also a classical pianist, a fireball at shorthand and a champion typist, capable of 220 words per minute. Improbably, given his nature, Smith had hoped to see hand-to-hand combat against the Japanese, whom he envisioned as the buck-toothed yellow rats of wartime propaganda. Today, he smiles in wonder and shakes his head at the thought of himself as a gung-ho GI Joe in the trenches, harboring racist thoughts. He ended up as a military court reporter in Virginia. And later came to realize that he was at heart always a pacifist.

Discharged from the service at war's end, he made amends with Dr. Gray, returned to college in Philadelphia and resolved to become a psychiatrist. But his first incision into that career cured him of that notion. As a job shadowing exercise, he attended a surgery and "couldn't stand the sight of all that blood."

Social work was what resonated in his heart. Dr. Gray, his mentor, told him that "law is a helping profession." The rest is history.

Smith graduated from Temple University in 1952 and came west to visit his mother, who had moved to Seattle. He loved it here and was accepted on the spot at the University of Washington Law School after the associate dean took one look at his college transcript. No LSAT's or letters of recommendation, just an on-the-spot pronouncement: "You're in."

Smith was in law school when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark 1954 ruling on segregated public schools - Brown v. Board of Education. The Warren Court unanimously held that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. America was on the threshold of a decade of momentous events in the struggle for civil rights.

Smith knew Martin Luther King Jr. when they were energetic young Baptists in Philadelphia, where Dr. Gray had become pastor of his father's church. Over the years, after Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus and Martin marched, Smith promoted civil rights in his own way.

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.

"He came of age among a generation of black intellectuals who viewed education and personal integrity, rather than confrontation, as the route to equality," Lynn Thompson of The Seattle Times noted on the occasion of Smith's retirement from the high court.

"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 more conservative than that."

Perhaps, but Smith had "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." Moreover, as the son of an immigrant, Justice Smith has long championed immigrant rights.

In 1985, when he was in private practice in Seattle, Smith urged the City Council to declare Seattle a "sanctuary city" for refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Smith said all citizens "have an obligation to criticize the government when we believe the government is wrong." Silence can be complicity, Smith said, pointing to postwar Germans "who chose to remain silent and who now as an aftermath are pretending that the Holocaust did not happen."

Justice Charles Z. Smith, a former president
                              of the American Baptist Churches, was appointed by President Clinton to serve on
                              the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Justice Charles Z. Smith, a former president of the American Baptist Churches, was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Besides his work on multiple fronts to eradicate racial bias from the courts, Smith served as president of the American Baptist Churches, USA, championed the cause of redress for Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II and was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. As the century turned, he was called to Stockholm for the roundtable discussions on "Reverence and Reconciliation: A Healing Response to Ethnic Cleansing."

Smith was elected to the State Supreme Court unopposed three times. After 14 years, he stepped down with mixed emotions in 2002, the year he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. Chief Justice Alexander called him "the heart and soul of our court." Other associates and former students have called Smith a "silent giant," "my hero," "one of the world's great human beings" and a "trailblazing legal pioneer."

Although naturally mild mannered, Smith cannot remain silent when confronted by racism. In 1990, the judge told a Tacoma City Club forum on race relations in Washington State that "Even though I am at the top of the judicial system, there are still people … who believe they can call me ‘nigger' and get away with it."

In one of the few confrontational episodes of his life, Smith says "a cabal" of his colleagues on the court conducted a "reign of terror" between 1990 and 1993 in an attempt to make him so mad that he would resign. The incident revolved around the firing of one of Justice Smith's law clerks over sexual harassment allegations.

Smith headed the state task force on minorities and justice - and still does. "I'd be anything less than candid to suggest we have no problem," he said at the time.

Since retirement, he's been working intermittently on a book that germinated from his experience with racism and the judiciary. The working title has been "The Dark Side of the Temple." Lately, however, he's thinking that the episode might be just one chapter in an autobiography.

On the court, Smith was a conciliator, tending to be "the swing vote in many split decisions, and he clearly (was) reluctant to dissent from a well-reasoned opinion," the late Charles H. Sheldon, a professor of political science at Washington State University, concluded in "The Washington High Bench, A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991."

Ideologically, Smith is simultaneously liberal and conservative - a bridge-builder for whom integrity and humanism have always mattered most. If he sends you a letter, right below the return address on the envelope are three words: "Truth-Justice-Freedom."

"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 told Sheldon in 1990.

If a label must be applied, Smith will proudly accept "humanitarian," emphasizing that for people of faith, hope and charity, it's a never-ending privilege and duty to help one's fellow man.

Charles and Eleanor “Elie” Martinez Smith on their wedding day in 1955. Charles and Eleanor "Elie" Martinez Smith on their wedding day in 1955.

The judge pauses several times to fight back tears and clear the lump in his throat as he recalls defining moments in his eventful life: The terrible anxiety - palpable 70 years later - that his father might be deported to Cuba in the depths of the Depression, leaving a wife and five children in dire straits; the day Eleanor "Elie" Martinez, a bright and beautiful young woman from Hawaii, agreed to marry him after he had deluged her with letters; the day that the sagacious Supreme Court Justice Matthew Hill picked him to be his clerk, a first for a person of color. At the time, no Seattle law firm would entertain the notion of hiring a "Negro attorney," even one with an extraordinary record of academic achievement and diverse life experiences.

Charles Z. Smith's America has come a long way since 1955.

In the sunset of his years, Justice Smith is heartened that a man a lot like himself - of mixed race and humble circumstances, but blessed with an exceptional intellect, nurtured by mentors and buoyed by self confidence and hard work - has become president of the United States.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Barack Obama said as he celebrated victory.

Justice Smith and his wife - she'd been for Obama when he was rooting for Hillary Clinton - savored the morning papers over breakfast on Nov. 5, 2008. But what had happened in America the day before didn't really sink in until he was "driving down the freeway, listening to some responses to the election." Suddenly, he was moved to tears.

About 20 former law clerks of State Supreme
                        Court Judge Matthew W. Hill surprised the judge with a dinner in 1965 at the Rainier
                        Club. Their gifts to him included World Series tickets and plane tickets to get
                        there. From left, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Charles Z. Smith and King County
                        Superior Court Judge Robert F. Utter. About 20 former law clerks of State Supreme Court Judge Matthew W. Hill surprised the judge with a dinner in 1965 at the Rainier Club. Their gifts to him included World Series tickets and plane tickets to get there. From left, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Charles Z. Smith and King County Superior Court Judge Robert F. Utter.

"I'm still working through the idea of the significance of (Obama's victory), and I'm not sure that I think of it in terms of the black-white thing," he said. "I think of it in terms of the evolution of the process by which we elect presidents. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic, (and that was a) big concern. He was elected and we no longer question whether the candidate is a Catholic or non-Catholic."

Justice Smith added, "It was Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, who made a comment that resonated with me. While attending a meeting in the Ukraine, (he said of Obama): ‘He's brilliant; he's charismatic; he has vision and he has a beautiful suntan.' … I thought it was great! …

"What is it about Obama that makes this what it is?" Smith mulls. "Here is a man who is not provincial. He's not a product of a farm background in North Dakota. He's born in Hawaii, grew up in Indonesia, has traveled the world and he's got roots in the continent of Africa, and all of this makes him an extraordinary person. And he's extraordinary because he's not white, and our country has reached the point where we can elect a president of the United States who is not a white male person."

However, when it comes to minority representation on our courts, Smith notes that we have not yet reached the point where the men and women in robes truly reflect the demographics of an increasingly diverse, culturally vibrant state. If justice is supposed to be blind, surely it should be colorblind, he maintains.

In 2008, Washington's minority population was nearly 24 percent, while only 7.5 percent of Washington's judges were ethnic minorities. The national figure was 10.1 percent.

There were 427 judicial slots in Washington State in 2008, and 32 were held by persons of color, including only three in Eastern Washington. The minority judges in Washington include seven Latinos, 10 Asians and 15 blacks.

Between the federal census in 2000 and the 2008 estimate by the state's Office of Financial Management, Washington's population grew 11.8 percent to 6.6 million. The Hispanic population, concurrently, grew by 39 percent to a total of nearly 614,000. Hispanics are the state's largest and fastest growing minority. Their share of the state's population increased from 7.5 percent in 2000 to 9.3 percent in 2008. Those seven Latino American judges on the bench statewide represent just 1.6 percent of the total.

The Asian/Pacific Islander population - the state's second fastest growing minority group - had increased 30.2 percent since 2000 to a total of nearly 454,000. That was 6.9 percent of the state's population, but they had only 2.3 percent representation on the bench.

The state's black population increased 17.5 percent between 2000 and 2008, reaching a total of about 222,500, or 3.4 percent of the state's population. Holding 3.5 percent of the judgeships, the number of African American judges is in proportion to the population, if that indeed is an appropriate benchmark.

The population of American Indians and Alaska Natives in Washington grew 10.4 percent from 2000 to 2008 to nearly 95,400, or 1.4 percent of the total. In 2008, there were no Native Americans on the bench in Washington State outside of tribal courts.

Since Justice Smith's retirement in 2002, there have been no ethnic minorities on Washington's high court, while 9.7 percent of the judges on state supreme courts nationwide in 2008 were persons of color.

Justice Smith, co-chairman of the Washington State Minority & Justice Commission, is disappointed and says you should be, too.

"If you end up with no person of color on the Supreme Court, is that right?" he asks.

"The question answers itself. … We still have a long way to go."