It’s easy to think of a courtroom as a cold, stark place, and the robed men and women as unearthly beings from the clouds of Olympus dispensing monolithic justice with an iron hand wielding a booming gavel. One can forget the law is applied by and for people, and those who do so are as human as the rest of us.
That’s why late Judge Sidney O. Smith Jr.’s humanity, his humor and the personal touch he applied to the law color the vivid memories many have of him.
It was that aspect of Judge Smith’s character that earned him the respect and admiration of so many in his nine years on the U.S. District Court bench and decades in private law practice. And that led to Monday’s dedication of the federal courthouse on Spring Street in Gainesville in his name.
The ceremony included both of Georgia’s U.S. senators, David Perdue and Johnny Isakson, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and host of dignitaries from government, business and the legal community.
Smith, who died in 2012 at age 88, was appointed as District Court judge in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and served until 1974, when he returned to his private law practice.
During that period, Smith was forced to enforce controversial federal civil rights laws during a turbulent era in the nation and in Georgia. But like many other leaders at the time, he sought to calm the furor rather than fan the flames, and he applied the law fairly and evenly. As a result, Gainesville was among the towns that avoided the worst unrest from that period that roiled so many other communities.
“He had too much respect for the law and for the processes of the law to ever take advantage of the situation. ... His strength was to bring people together, parties together and make the thing work,” his law partner, Ron Reid, said Monday.
Reid recalled a wooden hand plane given to Smith by his father that summed up his view of the law.
“I think what it symbolized was that justice was handmade. It wasn’t mass-produced. It was made by people, for people,” Reid said.
Smith’s son, Sidney O. Smith III, an attorney who carried on in the family business, said his father described justice as a “blind man trying to feel his way to the top of a mountain.”
“Those words always stayed with me, and now five years after my father died, I think my father was describing his inner light, as an officer of the court,” Smith said.
The bill renaming the courthouse was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, and signed into law last December by President Barack Obama. Said Collins: “Judge Sidney Smith served our country as a soldier in World War II and as a federal judge. His legacy is one of commitment to public service and civic duty, and that’s why I introduced a bill to name Gainesville’s courthouse and federal building after him. I am excited that his legacy will live on for years to come in a symbol of our community that bears his name.”
Smith’s role in the community also included serving on the Brenau University Board of Trustees for 35 years, one of four generations in his family to do so.
History has shown that American justice isn’t perfect. It must remain connected to the reality of the people it serves and be applied in a fair, impartial way. Smith lived up to that ideal by dispensing justice from the heart while endearing himself to the community he served.
We all can be proud the federal courthouse in town will bear his name as a testament to his legacy.
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