Ginsburg Dedicates Classroom, Cites Fond Memories of Smith

Published: September 25th, 2006

Category: News

Ginsburg and ChesterfieldTo U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chesterfield Smith was “the most magnetic, exuberant, irrepressible, altogether irresistible lawyer” she has ever known.

He was also her good friend. So when Ginsburg was asked to help the Levin College of Law dedicate the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, there was never any doubt that she would be there.

“Today’s ceremony is one I could hardly miss,” Ginsburg said, “for I held in highest esteem and deepest affection the man whose name this classroom now bears, Chesterfield Smith.”

At the Sept. 21 dedication Ginsburg recalled the first time she met Smith in 1972 at an ABA Journal board meeting in Portland, Maine. After hearing Smith speak, Ginsburg’s first impression was that he was “something of an ‘L’enfant terrible.”Ruth Ginsburg

Later, she said, she came to appreciate how Smith’s provocative style suited his purpose. Smith was never satisfied with the status quo if there was room for improvement, she said.

“Lawyers tend to be cautious–more than a few are what I call ‘no persons’–advisers who keep their clients safe by avoiding things yet untried,” Ginsburg said. Chesterfield was not of that stripe. He was instead a most positive ‘yes person.’ If asked can we do this or that, Chesterfield would invariably say ‘Yes we can with one large proviso—this or that must be the right thing to do.’

Whether with him or against him, lawyers agreed that Chesterfield Smith knew neither timidity, fear, nor ambivalence.”

A 1948 graduate of the UF law school, Smith was gift from the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation Inc.

The dedication ceremony drew a star-studded audience that included Ginsburg, former ABA Presidents Martha Barnett and Talbot “Sandy”

D’Alemberte, former Florida Supreme Court Justices Stephen Grimes and Ben Overton, UF President Bernie Machen, Levin College of Law Dean Robert Jerry, and dignitaries from Holland & Knight.

Barnett recalled the first time she met Smith when he stopped by the UF Law Review office to say hello to some of the students editors. She couldn’t have even imagined then that Smith would one day become her good friend as well as her partner at Holland & Knight.

Smith would cherish the classroom, she said, because it’s about what he valued: “law, lawyers, professionalism, excellence, and a commitment to the future.”

“One of our partners recently said that Chesterfield Smith was the only person he ever met who lived up to his reputation,” Barnett said. “He was a living legend, and now thanks to all of you, and to so many others who could not be here in person today, we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we have this vibrant, exciting, living memorial to continue his legacy and to inspire those students, faculty, visitors, citizens, to inspire those who walk through these doors to the same greatness that he achieved. If Chesterfield Smith were here today he would say to all of you, ‘Thank you and you did good.’”

One of the country’s most prominent lawyers, Smith’s legendary act came in 1973 when he was president of the American Bar Association. In what was dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre, President Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, prompting the nation’s attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and his top assistant to resign.

Almost immediately, Smith spoke out, telling the nation and the president, “No man is above the law.” He went on to lead the ABA’s effort to call for an independent counsel to investigate Nixon. His early voice of leadership altered history by becoming a catalyst in Nixon’s resignation.

Stunning as his call for Nixon’s impeachment was, Ginsburg said, Smith propelled the ABA forward in a no less significant way years earlier when he insisted that it would be the ABA’s obligation to assure that there would be a lawyer when needed for those unable to pay.

“By word and deed he urged first his own law partners and then lawyers everywhere to place community service at the center of their professional lives,” Ginsburg said.

On Friday, Sept. 22, Ginsburg spoke for about an hour in to hundreds of UF Law students, as well as faculty and staff, in the Schott Courtyard. He discussed everything from how she and her fellow justices interact with one another to the role of the judiciary.

At Friday’s dedication, Ginsburg recalled how Smith provided encouragement when he testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings when she was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Chesterfield Smith devoted his extraordinary talent and enormous energy to the improvement of the legal profession, to making the profession more honorable, more responsible to the people law and lawyers serve. This mentor to the young and grand colleague to all enlisted countless co-workers in the quest for equal justice under the law. He pursued great causes with contagious exuberance and a style that could make even the most sober judge smile. He was in sum among the brightest, boldest, bravest, all-around most effective lawyers ever to be bred in Florida or the USA. My affection for him was unbounded.”

The dedication video and program are available online at