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A legal lion who shaped Florida

He was the father of Florida's Constitution, a founder of Holland & Knight and one of the first to call for President Nixon to resign.

Published July 18, 2003

Legendary lawyer Chesterfield H. Smith, a chief architect of Florida's Constitution, champion of charitable legal work, and one of the first national figures to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, died Wednesday (July 16, 2003).

Mr. Smith, 85, died in a Coral Gables hospital of cardiopulmonary complications.

The plain talking Mr. Smith rose from humble beginnings in Arcadia to become one of the most influential lawyers in Florida history. He was a kingmaker, a warrior and an intellectual giant, his friends said.

Mr. Smith helped found the nations' eighth largest law firm, Holland & Knight LLP, and did not back down from a fight, especially if he perceived he could right some sort of wrong. He represented rich phosphate companies and poor inmates, the popular and the unpopular, with the same legal zeal, they said.

"During my lifetime, if I had to pick a handful of outstanding Americans, he would be one of them," said former Gov. Reubin Askew.

Mr. Smith, who took office as president of the American Bar Association in 1973, once said that the highlight of his career was calling for Nixon to resign. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recounted Mr. Smith's role in Watergate in the bestselling book The Greatest Generation, which profiled people who lived through the Depression and World War II and helped define postwar America.

Nixon had fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus and abolished the special prosecutor's office.

The next day, Mr. Smith released an ABA statement that said: "No man is above the law" and urged an independent special prosecutor be employed to investigate Nixon. Many major American newspapers carried the quote and the ABA's position.

"The justice system was being torn down by Nixon's actions," Mr. Smith told the Associated Press in 1999, recalling the Watergate era. Describing himself as "an old southern Democrat," he said he had voted for Nixon in 1972 - the first time he voted for a Republican.

Mr. Smith was frightened by the specter of a president who refused to abide by a court ruling. He believed the president had only two choices: Obey the court or appeal the ruling.

"It was like it was a banana republic," Smith said. "It was like what happens in small nations and foreign nations - for the first time, the president of the United States was using his authority to protect himself from investigation."

The irrepressible Mr. Smith forged a national image with his attacks on Nixon and also with his advocacy on the part of draft evaders. He wanted to eradicate a last symbol of "the cancer of Vietnam," he told the 1974 ABA convention.

"The ruptures of Watergate and Vietnam have left festering sores in our national life," he said.

Born Chesterfield Harvey Smith, he graduated from high school in Arcadia in 1934, in the depths of the Depression, in a class of 11 boys and 17 girls. He studied for a semester at the University of Florida before dropping out to work. He drove a candy-company truck, collected for a credit agency and jerked sodas.

When World War II arrived, he joined the mobilized Florida National Guard as a private and spent 61 months on duty, serving with Gen. George S. Patton in Europe. He came home as a major, decorated with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals. He returned to Gainesville and signed up for law school.

"In my little home town, some of the people I admired were lawyers," he recalled in 1993. "There was a nine-hole golf course where lawyers played. All the time during the war I knew I wanted to be a lawyer."

He graduated first in his class and became a lawyer in 1948, practicing in Arcadia for three years. Then Bill MacRae, a future federal judge, lured him to Bartow to build what became Holland & Knight.

The firm gelled in 1968 in the merger of Bartow's Holland, Bevis, McRae & Smith, which Mr. Smith formed with U.S. Sen. Spessard L. Holland, and Tampa's Knight, Jones, Whitaker & Germany.

The portly, white-haired Smith once told a reporter that he saw bigness as a way to be better. "We are not subservient to any interest economically," he drawled. "We can pick and choose."

Former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, a longtime friend from their days at law school, remembered asking Smith how he managed to keep all those lawyers happy and headed toward a common goal.

" "It's like trying to herd cats,' he told me," Gibbons said. "But he managed to do it, which is a testament to his skills as a leader."

Asked by a reporter once if he and his firm felt compromised by its close association with the phosphate industry, Mr. Smith replied, "It's worried us, I'd say that."

"I've always drawn a distinction between being an advocate for, say, the phosphate industry and a proponent for some public cause," he said on another occasion. "But I would agree that not everyone can see that distinction."

While not afraid to represent big business, Mr. Smith was also an influential proponent of lawyers giving back to the community by doing work for free, or pro bono. Steve Hanlon, the Holland & Knight partner in charge of pro bono work, said Smith took on the cause before it was part of the prevailing wisdom.

As more lawyers began making large amounts of money, Mr. Smith rallied harder for the cause, Hanlon said. In an impassioned speech, Mr. Smith once said that a law firm cannot be a slave to the billable hour, Hanlon recalled.

"There is more to the law than just making money," Hanlon remembered Smith saying.

In 2002, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented him with the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award in a formal ceremony in the Great Hall of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg praised his lifelong contributions to the legal profession and his leadership in creating a firm dedicated to public service.

"He has devoted his extraordinary talent and enormous energy to the improvement of the legal profession - to making the profession more honorable, more responsive to the people the law and lawyers serve," Ginsberg said. "He is, in sum, among the brightest, boldest, bravest, all-around most effective lawyers ever bred in Florida and the USA."

A product of the segregationist South, Mr. Smith helped to integrate the practice of law and its professional associations. He brought women and minorities into his firm.

In 1976, Mr. Smith headed the campaign committee for former 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Joseph Hatchett when he was running to retain his seat on the Florida Supreme Court. Hatchett was the first African-American to sit on the Florida Supreme Court and the 11th Circuit. (Hatchett was retained.)

"In the early '70s, the law was a profession of white males, and it was Chesterfield who started influencing the system to include African-Americans and women," Hatchett once said. "For a man from the South, that was extraordinary."

In 1997, former Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet named him one of the state's "Great Floridians." A film of his life, Citizen Smith, was created for public television.

The film included his work in chairing the first Constitution Revision Commission in Florida since 1885. The 1968 commission was charged with bringing the state into the 20th century. Under his leadership, the Declaration of Rights was expanded and the state's modern format was adopted, including initiatives by the people and constitutional revision every 20 years.

"He became one of the most influential and powerful people in Florida history without ever being elected to office," said Sidney L. Matthew, who made the Citizen Smith film. "That's amazing."

His wife of 43 years, Vivian Parker Smith, died in 1987. Survivors include his wife, Jacqueline; and two children, Rhoda Smith Kibler and Chesterfield Jr., both lawyers.

"Chesterfield was a Superman of truth, social justice and defense of the American way," said Jack Levine, president of Voices for Florida's Children.

- Times staff writer Martin Dyckman contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files, the Associated Press and archives of the Tampa Tribune.

[Last modified July 18, 2003, 02:08:21]

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