Roots run deep in Levy County courtroom
BY LINDY MCCOLLUM-BROUNLEY
The Hon. Joseph Smith (JD 68), a recently retired Levy County judgle in the 8th Judicial Circuit, has known a lot of people and seen a lot change in Florida’s court system during the course of his 40-year legal career.
“I graduated from law school, and when I passed the bar I was working with Clayton Duncan Johnson Clayton Quincy Ireland & Felder,” Smith said. “They hired me to manage their office here in Bronson.”
As soon as he walked through the firm’s front door on his first day at work, Smith was handed a divorce case file and told he had a hearing on it that morning in front of the judge..
“I said, ‘Wow, what on earth do I do?’ Because back when I graduated from law school, you had no internship, and as far as preparing a deed, or will, or contract, or any type of performance in court, we didn’t have any experience doing that,” Smith laughs. “So, I went before Judge Patten, who was a kind judge and he sort of walked me through it, but I was scared to death.”
Now Smith is the one behind the bench, a position he’s held since his appointment in 1993 after more than 20 years of service as Levy County’s state attorney. Smith retired in December, but he has found serving his community as a judge to be profoundly satisfying. Many of the people who came before Smith, a Levy County native, have connections with people he knows. Although Levy County is the ninth largest county in Florida in terms of land area it has a small, mostly rural population of 36,000 — nearly 20 percent of which lives below poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. When any of these residents came before him, Smith’s hometown connections afforded him with special insight to and compassion for the broad consequences of the individual’s criminal actions.
“It’s never just that person standing before you, it’s their whole family — their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, their daughters, their sons, their wives, their husbands. It is sometimes difficult to sentence somebody who you know wouldn’t be before you if they were more responsible to begin with, and most of the time they are struggling just to maintain existence,” Smith said. “That’s the challenge, to try to structure a sentence that perhaps can mete out some justice and stay within the law and yet at the same time try to help them in becoming a functioning member of society.”
Smith has worked hard to dispense justice with compassion, and his interest in the people who landed in his court is personal. “We’re much, much smaller [than the courts in more populated counties], and because we’re smaller we perhaps have more time — our dockets are not quite as crowded, the clerk’s office is not as busy,” Smith said. “We can still be personally involved in cases and know people… you go to a ball game and you
know people; I sit on juvenile court and I know these kids because I was born and raised here.”
Because Smith has such close ties to the people in his community, they are comfortable in approaching him directly when seeking help for family members who are teetering on the edge of the law, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved.
“Addiction is such a horrible thing. Drug and alcohol additions are so tangible and so open, and so much crime revolves around the illegal use of drugs and alcohol,” Smith said. “I’ve been able to bring people in and sit them down with the parents and wives and husbands and talk to them about it and I have called and made arrangements to get them into treatment centers for rehab, some with success and some not.”
Now that Smith is retired, it will be these opportunities to help change lives that he will miss, but he’ll also miss being a part of the living, breathing law.
“I will miss interacting with people. I will miss being involved in cases. I enjoy sitting on the bench,” Smith said. “If you’re going to practice law and eventually become a judge, you have to devote a lot of time to the study of the law…. The law is changing, evolving, and that’s what’s so neat about it too, that it does change with society.”