UW Law Remembers Justice Charles Z. Smith ’55
Charles Z. Smith, legal pioneer and Washington’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, died peacefully in his home August 28. He was 89.
A professor and associate dean at the University of Washington School of Law, Justice Smith’s vibrant portrait adorns the walls of William H. Gates Hall, depicting a man whose life was distinguished by many firsts: the first person of color in the state to serve as a judge on the Seattle Municipal Court (1965-66), the first to serve on the King County Superior Court (1966-73) and the first person of color to serve as a Justice on the Washington Supreme Court (1988–2002).
“Justice Smith is one of the true giants of law in Washington and has been a part of the Husky family for over half a century,” said Kellye Testy, dean of UW School of Law. “While we will miss him terribly, we will honor his legacy by redoubling our work for justice and equality.”
Spanning half a century, Smith’s public service career included work as a judge, UW School of Law professor and associate dean, news commentator, prosecutor, human rights activist, national church leader and military officer.
A tireless advocate for social justice and human rights, Smith was widely respected and his impact felt both locally and internationally.
“His engaging smile and warm embrace would always brighten up your day. He was an outstanding jurist, a community leader and a true inspiration,” said Lisa Castilleja, UW School of Law assistant director of inclusion initiatives and community outreach. “Justice Smith will be greatly missed and always remembered as a great friend and teacher.”
Smith, the son of a Cuban immigrant father and an African-American mother, had a long and winding path to Olympia. At age 14, he was chosen to be part of an educational experiment geared to exceptional students. Instead of completing high school, Smith took college courses in Florida and Pennsylvania. After graduating from Temple University and serving in the armed forces, he was accepted by the UW School of Law in 1952 and was the only African-American in his graduating class of 1955. He met his wife, Eleanor Jane Martinez, in his last year of law school and they married in 1955.
After graduation, the doors to private practice in law firms were closed to this young African-American attorney, but it did not deter him from pursuing a career in the law. His law professors recommended that he pursue a clerkship and he became the first African-American clerk for Washington Supreme Court Justice Matthew Hill (class of 1916). He then went to work as a deputy prosecuting attorney in King County, Washington, where he met Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was chief counsel for the Senate Labor and Racketeering Committee, also known as the McClellan Committee.
In 1961, Kennedy became U.S. Attorney General and asked Smith to join his staff in the Justice Department. Smith then moved to Washington, DC, to work in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in the Criminal Division.
Although he had previously declined an opportunity to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, in July 1988 he accepted an appointment from Governor Booth Gardner to fill an unexpired term of two years. Smith ran unopposed in the September election and was re-elected in 1990 and 1996 without opposition.
Throughout his career, Justice Smith served as a mentor to attorneys and judges in Washington State. He inspired young men and women to believe in themselves and challenged them to pursue excellence.
“I first met Justice Smith when I was a law student, and from that day forward he became a legal coach and advisor at every step in my legal career,” said the Honorable Richard A. Jones of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington. “His advice spanned from helping me stay employed during law school, guiding me through career decisions and speaking on my behalf at my King County Superior Court investiture. Of course he was there like a proud father when I transitioned to the Federal bench.”
Charles Z. Smith worked to eliminate racial bias from the court in many capacities. From 1987 to 1990, Smith served as chairperson of the Washington State Supreme Court's Minority and Justice Task Force and created a National Consortium to address issues of racial and ethnic fairness in state courts. He spent many years working on behalf of immigrants' rights, and also chaired the American Bar Association Task Force on Minorities in the Judiciary, Judicial Division.
In 1999, he was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises the president and Congress on strengthening religious freedom and combating religious persecution worldwide. He was the ultimate public servant and a champion of civil rights, inspiring others to take on the challenges faced in the community and to be effective agents of change.
The Honorable Ronald E. Cox of the Washington Court of Appeals was one of those young attorneys inspired by Justice Smith.
“I was deeply saddened by the news of the death of Justice Charles Z. Smith,” said Cox, who was a student of Smith’s at UW School of Law. “I later appeared before him when he was a judge on the King County Superior Court. At his request, I served on the Minority & Justice Commission of the state supreme court. And he was instrumental in my decision to pursue the position I now hold as a judge on the state court of appeals.”
Smith’s impact spanned generations and his legacy extends to the many attorneys, law students and judges he mentored and served throughout his career.
“Justice Smith was a mentor to many,” said Cox. “Some disagreed with his style. But there can be no reasonable challenge to his effectiveness. Both he and his wife, Ellie, are models of the very best we can be.”
His dedicated career of public service demonstrates what it means to be a true leader for the global common good.
“The magic of his eloquence and passion for precision in the law are just two of his many attributes that will continue his legacy as one of the great jurists of modern times,” said Jones. “He is a dear friend who will be sorely missed.”
To learn more about Justice Smith, visit his UW School of Law memorial page.
Donations in Justice Smith's name may be made to support student scholarships at UW School of Law.