Gainesville native Sidney Olsin Smith Jr., considered by some as the “consummate Southern intellectual,” is the potential namesake for the federal courthouse in downtown Gainesville.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have filed bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to name the Gainesville courthouse after the longtime judge.
Brenau University President Ed Schrader said he was “elated” to hear the news, calling it “an early Christmas present.”
“(Smith) had the genteelness of a Southern gentleman and the insightful intelligence of a legal genius, and that’s such a rare combination,” Schrader said.
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Smith to the bench as a U.S. District Court Judge in 1965.
Smith, who died in 2012, was the fourth generation in his family to serve on the Brenau Board of Trustees, acting on the board for 35 years.
He and John W. Jacobs Jr., another longtime Brenau board member and founder of Jacobs Media, were the two frontmen of the board, Schrader said.
In a good cop-bad cop scenario for negotiations, Jacobs played the good cop while Smith portrayed himself with an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” Schrader said.
“They worked so well together,” he said. “They were just a terrific team. They negotiated well together.”
Carolyn Smith, the judge’s wife, is one of the biggest proponents for the courthouse namesake.
“He was such a principled person and so dedicated to his profession in protecting our justice system,” Carolyn Smith said. “He was always eager to assist in anything he could to make life better for everybody around him.”
Carolyn Smith said the two met as next-door neighbors for a year before Sidney Smith’s first wife, Patricia Horkan, died in 2001. Carolyn and Sidney Smith married in 2004.
“It was a wonderful life,” she said. “He was such a warm, giving person.”
Collins’ father, a state patrolman, had great respect for Smith. The judge served as a Northeastern Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge from 1962 until 1965.
In legal circles, Collins said Smith’s name holds a heavy weight.
“There’s just certain folks that people mention and when you mention their name, you have that respect,” Collins said.
Smith ruled on the U.S. District Court bench until 1974, returning to private practice. In the tumultuous time surrounding the civil rights era, Smith had to render tough decisions that minimized conflict between both sides, Schrader said.
“Whether he was ruling for a conservative opinion in one case or a liberal opinion in another case, Sid never looked at the political basis of the decision,” he said. “It was strictly what was the correct interpretation of the law, and he managed to communicate it in a fashion that didn’t incite hostility.”
Schrader said Smith’s influence in his time with Brenau was to consistently raise the standards and expectations of excellence for the school.
Almost nine years ago, Brenau Vice President of Communications and Publications David Morrison recalled the first trustee meeting sitting behind the esteemed judge.
“He kind of punched me in the chest a little bit and said, ‘You can do good here.’ And it wasn’t a statement,” Morrison said. “It was a directive from the bench.”