Craig Smith appreciates the value of a good education — the operative word being “value,” as he didn’t have much money to spend on it during his formative years.

Smith grew up in a government-run apartment in Dallas and was raised by a single mother who supported her three sons by working as a hostess at a restaurant.

“I’m the only one that graduated from high school. And I’m certainly the only one who went to college,” Smith says.

He pursued a college education because of the encouragement of the fathers of his high school friends, who served as mentors to the young Smith.

“You can have all of the hard work in you that’s available, but if you don’t have good people in your life and some luck, it just doesn’t happen,” Smith says of higher education.

So when he was accepted into the University of Texas, he relied on student aid, work study programs and taking summer courses at community college to afford his education. After graduating from UT in 1973 with a degree in finance, he worked briefly on an MBA while working as a teaching assistant at UT but decided he didn’t want to be a businessman.

So he applied to Southern Methodist University’s School of Law and was accepted. But he couldn’t afford the tuition, he says, so he went to Texas Tech University School of Lawinstead, graduating in 1976.

“It was one of the best things that ever happened,” Smith says of his experience at Tech law school. “I just like public education and what has been available to people in my situation.”

After law school, Smith briefly joined Fort Worth’s Shannon Gracey Ratliff & Miller as an associate and left for Dallas’ Law Offices of Windle Turley. In 1984, he formed his own firm, Demarest & Smith.

After practicing as a plaintiff’s lawyer for years, another mentor came into his life who encouraged him to pursue a higher calling, he says.

“I loved practicing law and having my own private practice. I had some relative success that made it possible to do something else,” Smith says. “I looked at teaching and some alternatives. I was real good friends with my predecessor Merrill Hartman, and he advised me to seek his seat.”

Hartman retired from the 192nd District Court at the end of his term in 2006. And Smith had the good fortune of deciding to seek that bench as a Democrat in a general election cycle when his party swept Dallas’ courthouses, taking 41 benches from Republican opponents.

“It’s just been a wonderful career for someone like me. I’ve been a trial lawyer all of my professional career. I kind of chewed all of the flavor out of it, and this came along,” Smith says. “And I didn’t have go to school to do it.”

In his free time, Smith enjoys two-wheeled transportation. He used to ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle but traded it in for a vehicle that is powered by his own two feet.

“I now ride a road bike and ride a lot with my friends and my wife,” Smith says.

Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who rides a Vespa motor scooter and doesn’t understand why everyone else doesn’t do the same, e-mailed Smith some questions to ponder. Here are his answers, edited for length and style.

Judge Craig Smith
192nd District Court
Dallas
Elected to the Bench: 2006
Age: 57

Texas Lawyer: What was the transition from advocate to judge like for you?

Judge Craig Smith: My jokes are funnier, and my stories are a lot more interesting.

TL: What Texas civil code is the most frustrating for you?

Smith: Rule 1 – Texas Rules of Court: “The objective of the rules . . . is to obtain a just, fair, equitable and impartial adjudication of the rights of litigants . . . these rules shall be given liberal construction.” . . . Rule 1′s objective is being severely restricted as limitations on trial judge discretion are added by the appellate courts and the Legislature. Trial court discretion is a fundamental element in our civil justice system. It allows the trial court to fashion its rulings to fit the needs of the case while staying within the rule of law. Discretion at the trial court level helps keep fairness and balance in our system and is essential to justice. Further limitations only conflict with this objective.

TL: Tell us something about your childhood that you’ve never forgotten and is relevant to your current job.

Smith: There is always a lot that other people can teach you.

TL: What do lawyers do in your courtroom that drives you absolutely insane, beyond the normal not being prepared for a hearing, showing up late or arguing with each other?

Smith: Any case where the lawyers are not open and candid with the court.

TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?

Smith: Any case where the lawyers are not open and candid with the court.

TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?

Smith: I like trial lawyers; I remember when I was one of them. I expect lawyers to have conflicts that need to be resolved at the courthouse. My job is to make the hard decisions the advocates can’t. I want to help the parties get all the information they need to get the case resolved, either by settlement or trial.

TL: What is the best way a lawyer can get in your good graces?

Smith: Be candid with me and admit mistakes.

TL: Tell us about a moment in your courtroom where you thought “Wow, I never thought I’d ever see that happen.”

Smith: Me in the black robe sitting on the bench — still got to pinch myself sometimes.

TL: What is the toughest ruling you ever had to make?

Smith: Every time I sign an Order of Foreclosure on a family’s home.

TL: Have you ever ridden your road bike to the courthouse?

Smith: Only on weekends. A 57-year-old judge in Spandex biking shorts could be too much for the George Allen Courthouse during working hours.

“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.