When George Bundy Smith spoke to his colleagues about cases and issues during closed-door judicial conferences at the Court of Appeals, he often didn’t have to say too much.
A soft-spoken man, Smith’s words carried great weight. And on a number of occasions, said his longtime colleague, former Judge Howard Levine, his fellow jurists on the high court saw his points and were persuaded.
“He didn’t have to say a lot, he was humble. And he brought a very strong moral dimension to being a judge. He was the Isaiah of our court,” Levine said in an interview on Tuesday, referencing the biblical figure and recalling the respect shown by colleagues to Smith, who died Aug. 5 at age 80.
“He could be quite articulate, and I think because he was so pure of spirit, his colleagues listened to him,” Levine went on. “And on a number of cases, he brought the court around to protecting against the invasion of the rights of the criminally accused,” which was an area of particular interest for Smith, Levine said.
Smith had been ill in recent years and he collapsed at his home in Harlem on Aug. 5, according to his son, George Bundy Smith Jr. As word traveled through state legal circles of Smith’s passing, an outpouring of admiration and sadness came quickly from New York leaders and dozens of area lawyers.
Smith had retired in 2006 after 14 years on the Court of Appeals bench. He was the third African-American ever appointed to the state’s high court. During that time, he penned the majority opinion in 2004 in People v. LaValle, which effectively ended the death penalty in New York. He and three other justices found that a key provision of the capital punishment law violated the state’s constitution. Three judges dissented.
Many years before, in 1961, as a young civil rights fighter, Smith was arrested on a “Freedom Ride” to Alabama.
But even all of that on Smith’s resume hardly began to describe the fullness of his impact on the state and in New York legal circles, friends, former colleagues and former law clerks said on Tuesday.
He was “soft-spoken, self-effacing and completely dedicated to fairness and justice for all people throughout his career,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a statement, adding, “He leaves our nation a better place than he found it. We will miss him deeply.”
“He was a giant who left a mark on New York, and we are all the better for it,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “From his days as a Freedom Rider, to serving as a jurist on the state trial courts, to his tenure on the state’s highest court … Judge Bundy Smith lived a life of distinction and public service.”
Dionne Fraser, Smith’s former law clerk during the judge’s final year on the Court of Appeals, noted that he was known for writing strong dissents in certain criminal cases, especially when an accused’s rights appeared to be infringed upon.
“He wrote them when he didn’t believe that a defendant had been given a fair shot in the criminal justice system,” she said.
“He was not a very vocal person,” she added, noting that lobbying others publicly was not his way. “He let his [written] opinions speak for themselves.”
Of his focus on defending the accused and minorities whose rights were being violated, she added, “I think it all made sense, from his early kind of formative period, working as a Freedom Rider and reaching Yale Law School, to coming to New York City and trying to work in the judicial system in the 1970s.”
Still, for Fraser, it was Smith’s tireless work in the legal community away from the bench that meant even more to her—and that, she said, stays with her today. Smith, she said, spent years mentoring and championing the careers of young lawyers in New York, especially the careers of African-American attorneys.
He believed strongly that the state’s judicial benches should have more diversity, and his way of pushing the issue was to encourage and lead young, talented lawyers to follow in his footsteps.
“He would call it putting in your papers,” Fraser recalled. “He’d ask us, ‘When are you going to put in your papers, and submit your application to be a judge?’ He thought that was the highest calling, to leave private practice and enter public service.”
Moreover, she said, he was often there for the young lawyers he mentored in the tough times, too.
In 2010, Fraser was at a low point in her career, and she went for lunch with Smith at the Yale Club in Manhattan. She complained about how tough law firm life was. In turn, he told her, “I’ve spent my entire life telling young African-American lawyers to believe in themselves, and I need you to believe in yourself.” He also told her not to let the bad times define her career. Today, she is a vice president in the legal department at JPMorgan Chase Bank.
George Bundy Smith was born in New Orleans and grew up in Washington, D.C. He was schooled at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, where he was the only African-American in the graduating class of 1955.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, an LL.B. from Yale Law School, and later in life, in 2001, an LL.M. from the University of Virginia School of Law. In between, in the 1960s and early 1970s, he obtained a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. from New York University, said his son.
It was during his second year in law school, in 1961, when William Sloane Coffin, Yale University’s chaplain and a man active in the Civil Rights Movement, invited a young Smith to travel to Montgomery, Alabama, as a Freedom Rider, according to Janiece Brown Spitzmueller, a longtime New York attorney and friend of Smith’s.
Smith accepted, even though it was just two weeks before law school exams. He and his fellow riders were soon arrested for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. He missed his exams and was convicted of breach of the peace, Brown Spitzmueller said. The U.S. Supreme Court later reversed the conviction.
Smith served on the Civil Court of New York City from 1975 to 1979, on the state Supreme Court in Manhattan from 1980 to 1986, and on the Appellate Division, First Department, from 1986 to 1992.
After stepping down from the state’s high court in 2006, he became a partner at Chadbourne & Parke in Manhattan, served on JAMS, and was a professor at Fordham Law School.
Over the years, he also served on the NYCLA board of directors, and on the board of trustees of the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and was a longtime trustee of Phillips Academy. He was also a founding member of New York’s Metropolitan Black Bar Association.
New York State Bar Association President Sharon Stern Gerstman called Smith “a pioneer in the efforts for greater diversity and inclusiveness in the legal profession.”
“His long and distinguished record of public and professional service serves as an inspiration to all members of the bar,” she said in a statement.
Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday at Riverside Church in Manhattan. The viewing is set from 9 to 9:50 a.m. and services will begin at 10, George Bundy Smith Jr. said.
Donations in the memory of Smith may be made to Phillips Academy Andover at Phillips Academy, Attn: Kathleen O’Sullivan,180 Main St., Andover, MA 01810. Donations may also be made online at Andover.edu.