Justice Charles Z. Smith when he served as a judge on the King County Superior Court • Photo courtesy of the Secretary of State
Justice Charles Z. Smith when he served as a judge on the King County Superior Court • Photo courtesy of the Secretary of State

Former Washington state Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith passed away on Sunday, August 28. He was the first African-American minority to serve on the state Supreme Court and was an active member of the Redress movement for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

Justice Smith broke many racial barriers throughout his career, becoming the first African-American judge on both the King County Superior Court and Seattle Municipal Court.

Justice Smith served on the Board of the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) Seattle Chapter, after becoming acquainted with the Japanese-American community through his wife, who grew in Hawaii. As momentum increased for redress to Japanese-Americans placed in incarceration camps during WWII during the 1960s and 1970s, Justice Smith provided legal help for the movement for about three decades. In an oral history with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor Movement Project, Justice Smith said he served for about 25 years on the board.

Charles Z. Smith was an active member in the fight for Japanese American redress. He offered his time, expertise, and counsel on critical issues which help shaped the strategy to achieve redress,” wrote the JACL Seattle Chapter in a statement. “Justice Smith was a true Seattle JACLer.”

Born in Florida in 1927, when the segregation was commonplace in the South, Justice Smith was the son of a mechanic from Cuba and an African-American mother. He earned his undergraduate degree in Philadelphia, PA in 1952, then moved to Seattle where he entered and subsequently graduated from the University of Washington Law School. He was one of two Black students to graduate with a law degree in 1955. He returned to the law school as a professor and associate dean in 1973.

“Charles Z. Smith was a man of impeccable integrity, a straight shooter, who was the personification of ‘dignity.’  He had an aura about him that demanded respect,” said Gary Iwamoto, a former student of Justice Smith and a board member of the International Examiner.

“When I went to law school, I first met Charles Z. Smith who was then the Associate Dean of the UW School of Law,” Iwamoto said. “He took an interest in how I was doing with my studies.  Like many lawyers and law students of color, he became my mentor and served as a role model toward my aspirations to be an attorney.”

Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement recognized Justice Smith’s, “commitment to justice throughout his career.”

“Seattle lost another icon this past weekend,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. “Justice Smith blazed the trail as the first African American Supreme Court justice in our state’s history, and spent years fighting for civil rights and social justice. As a lawyer and a mentor to many, he broke boundaries both in this city and in the field of law nationally. Justice Smith leaves behind a legacy dating back to the early days of the civil rights movement and a spirit that will continue to live on in Seattle.”

Referring to the passing of “Uncle Bob” Santos and Justice Charles, Executive Director of the Densho Project, Tom Ikeda, wrote, “These two men left behind a legacy of mentoring and connecting people of color, and an army of admirers and social activists to carry on their work.”  

Below is an excerpt from an oral history with Justice Smith by Densho:

Update (8/31/2016 at 2:36 p.m.): The following is a statement from the family of Justice Charles Z. Smith on August 30, 2016.

Retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith died peacefully in his home on Sunday, August 28, 2016. He was 89 years old.

Justice Smith was the first person of color to serve as a judge in Washington state when he was appointed to the Seattle Municipal Criminal Court in 1965. He was appointed to the King County Superior Court in 1966, making him the first person of color to serve at that level in Washington state.

Justice Smith’s career also included serving as Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County from 1956 until 1960, and Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States under Robert F. Kennedy, from 1960 until 1964. After serving on the King County Superior Court for seven years, he left to become an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Washington until 1986. That year, he also retired from the United States Marine Corps Reserve (Judge Advocate Division) with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Justice Smith was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court in 1988 by Governor Booth Gardner, the first person of color to become a Justice in the state’s history. He was subsequently elected to that position unopposed until his retirement in 2002 at the mandatory retirement age of 75. In 1987, he was founding chairperson of the Washington Supreme Court’s Minority and Justice Task Force, which became the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission in 1988. He retired as co-chairperson of the Commission in 2009.

Throughout his career, Justice Smith was actively engaged in local, national, and international programs and organizations related to education, human rights, family and children, religion, health, prison reform, military justice, and racial, ethnic, and cultural awareness. He received numerous awards in recognition of his public service.

Justice Smith lived an exemplary life founded on the three pillars of “Truth, Justice, and Freedom”. He was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. His legacy extends beyond his family to the larger community that he mentored and served.

Justice Smith is survived by his wife of 61 years, Eleanor M. Smith; his children Carlos Smith, Michael Smith, Stephen Smith, and Felicia Gittleman; daughters-in-law Sumi Hayashi and Mary Jane Efflandt; grandchildren Mahealani Smith, Alexander Gittleman, Miguel Smith, John Smith, Taliya Gittleman, and Xavier Smith; siblings Julia Stoudemire, Boneva Heflin, Clint Bartholomew Smith, and Freddie Burt Smith; and many nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is planned. Details will be announced at a later date.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, remembrances be made to the Charles Z. Smith Scholarship Fund at the University of Washington Law School, or to your favorite charity.

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