Judge's decision to accept post was not easy one


October 23, 1990|By M. Dion Thompson

Thursday night, Oct. 4, was long and hard for Judge Paul A. Smith.

The Baltimore District Court judge and Circuit Court judge candidate had already made a strong showing in the September primary and now had to decide whether to finish the race, or accept Gov. William Donald Schaefer's offer of an appointment to the Circuit Court.

"By the time I got home Thursday evening, it had already been on TV. It was on the radio, and the word on the street was that Judge Paul Smith had been appointed and had accepted," Judge Smith said yesterday. "I was receiving congratulations. My phone was ringing off the hook."

Judge Smith accepted the appointment Oct. 5 and will be sworn in formally this afternoon as the 24th judge on the Baltimore Circuit Court. Though the decision meant he got what he had campaigned for, and ended what many feared would be a politically and racially divisive election, accepting the appointment was not an easy choice.

On the one hand, there was the possibility of an election victory, cementing his position on the Circuit Court for the next 15 years, and driving home the African-American electorate's desire for equitable representation on the Circuit Court bench.

Before Judge Smith's appointment, only seven of the court's 23 judges were African American, although African Americans make up about 60 percent of the city's population. Still, despite his showing in the primary, victory was not guaranteed.

Judge Smith was being offered the position he had wanted, and he wondered how people would react if he rejected it.

Thursday night, Oct. 4, was a time for soul-searching. And, being a judge, he did what judges often do -- weigh the pros and cons, the pluses and minuses, and then reach a fair decision.

"The possibility of walking away without having achieved the prize was a cost I was not willing to pay," he said. "In my mind, there was no choice but to take the victory now, rather than walk away completely defeated. That did not mean I was overjoyed."

Judge Smith described his appointment as a bittersweet victory. It was not the complete victory an election would have been. In accordance with state rules, to keep his seat on the Circuit Court, he must run in the 1992 general election.

But those concerns are for the future. For now, Judge Smith is content to accept what he calls the pinnacle of his career, a Circuit Court judgeship in the city he has always called home.

Born at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Jan. 14, 1936, Judge Smith grew up in East Baltimore. His was a large family, six sisters and four brothers.

His father, the Rev. Angus A. Smith, 83, is a minister at Memorial Baptist Church, located at the corner of Preston and Caroline streets. Judge Smith said his father wanted him to be a minister, but he didn't think he measured up to that profession. His mother, Evelyn L. Smith, 80, has always been a homemaker.

Growing up was relatively easy. He went to city schools and, at the age of 13, got his first job, earning $7 a week stoking coal at a boarding house. In February 1953, he graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School and gave up stoking coal for working as an order filler at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That job paid 50 cents an hour. But he quickly tired of it. That fall he enlisted in the Marines.

"It was probably one of the smartest things I've ever done," he said. "I came out of it a man."

His enlistment lasted four years and ended with his being discharged in 1957. He was a sergeant, an electronic technician. But, he said, jobs in his field were hard to find.

"Nobody offered me a job in the field," he said. "Of course, I wasn't waiting for a job, I was in college, but it's difficult for me to communicate to you how difficult being black in 1957 was in any area but government."

By day, he studied political science at Morgan State College and at night, he sorted mail for the U.S. Postal Service. He got his bachelor's degree from Morgan in 1963, and enrolled in the University of Maryland's Law School. He also changed jobs, now working at the Social Security Administration during the day, while studying law at night.

When he received his law degree in 1967, he found himself at a crossroads. He could continue working for the government, or strike out on his own as a lawyer. He took the unfamiliar route and went into private practice.

"I went from, oh, about $19,000 in 1968, and I netted about $3,000 in 1969," he said. "I lost about 25 pounds, and it was a shock. It was a culture shock for me."

Slowly, he returned to public service, first as a part-time public defender. In 1971, his judicial experience began when he was appointed as a master in chancery, hearing juvenile cases. He moved up to the District Court when he was appointed by then-Gov. Harry Hughes in 1983.

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