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Judge D. Brooks Smith '76 celebrates 25 years on the bench

Twenty-five years ago, Judge D. Brooks Smith was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by President Ronald Reagan. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 14, 1988. Now, Judge Smith sits on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and brings his passion for the rule of law to judges around the world and law students at Penn State.
Judge D. Brooks Smith is celebrating 25 years on the federal bench.

From a young age, the Honorable D. Brooks Smith considered two career paths: one inspired by his Lutheran upbringing and the other by his fascination with politics. The latter passion ultimately won out, with Judge Smith forgoing seminary school and life as a pastor for a career in the law and as a public servant. After graduating from the Dickinson School of Law in 1976, he began his legal career in Altoona, Pa., becoming the managing partner of Jubelirer, Carothers, Krier, Halpern, and Smith in 1981. He then spent a year as a district attorney and four years as a state court judge in Blair County, Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years ago, Judge Smith was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 14, 1988. He served as the chief judge of the court from 2001 to 2002. President George H. Bush appointed Judge Smith to his current position on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

One of the biggest challenges for Judge Smith in going from a trial court post to an appellate court post was the lack of interaction with people outside of chambers. “Trial work is about action and activity. It’s also about constantly having contact with people,” he said. “I liked the constant give and take of interacting with lawyers, of having advocates before me and engaging with them, and of dealing with jurors and witnesses. Life on the Court of Appeals brings you into very little contact with the outside world. As an indication of how different a place it is, I bring my dog Katie to work all the time. Katie has yet to comply with a single command I have given her in seven years. That is downright humbling.”

In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Judge Smith as chair of the Committee on Space and Facilities of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is responsible for making decisions about whether a new courthouse needs to be built, what the design of that courthouse should include, and how many courtrooms need to be provided to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of justice.

According to Judge Smith, the biggest challenge facing the federal judiciary during his 25 years on the bench is the current lack of funds brought upon by a political gridlock and the effects of sequestration. Although the federal courts constitute a separate, co-equal branch of government, the federal judiciary’s share of the budget is less than two-tenths of one percent.

“While serving as chair is an honor, it’s certainly not a good time to be doing so,” Judge Smith said. “At some point during 2014, the United States of America and its federal courts will not have enough budgeted funds to pay the rent bill to the General Services Administration. By fiscal year 2015, we will be faced with the question of whether or not the federal courts can continue to meet their constitutional obligations. That’s how difficult it is. Quite frankly, I never thought I’d live to see the day when the courts of the United States of America were confronted with that kind of challenge.”

Off the Bench

Not every day is spent behind the desk pouring over briefs, writing opinions, and crunching numbers. The lack of interpersonal contact that Judge Smith experiences as an appellate judge is compensated through his mentorship to his law clerks and through his teaching—both at the Law School as an adjunct professor of law for a course on class actions and as an instructor teaching judges in other countries about the rule of law in America.

“Engaging with young people is one reason why teaching at the Law School is so important to me,” he said. “I have an opportunity to do that with my law clerks on a daily basis. That’s probably the best part of the job of appellate judge: having smart, young law clerks with whom to discuss legal issues and talk about cases.”

Stephen Daly ’13 described his externship with Judge Smith as remarkable. “Even though I was only a 2L, Judge Smith gave me the opportunity to attend and participate in chambers deliberations—something that I am unlikely to ever experience again in my legal career,” Daly said. “I think it’s rare to be part of a small team of extremely smart and talented people of diverse backgrounds and ages who sit around and just try to find the right answer to a case. It was never contentious and no one was afraid to ask questions or assert a different perspective. The judge and the clerks all knew that we had to get the right answer because, more than likely, we were the last court that would look at the case.”

Throughout the years, Judge Smith has helped in efforts to enhance the rule of law in the judicial systems of Central and Eastern Europe. He has taught judicial training sessions in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Russia, Serbia, and the Philippines, while also learning about the various comparative legal systems in place there.

“Judges in other countries have an enormous interest in how we do our jobs here in the United States and the resources that are available to us, just as we’re interested in the kinds of legal work they do and the legal processes that they follow,” said Judge Smith. It has always been very gratifying to me to see the extent at which judges interact well judge to judge. There is a camaraderie that has allowed me and others to talk with judges everywhere.”

And while a commonality of interests among judges exists, sometimes the conversations can become awkward. “Members of the judiciary in other countries are essentially civil servants, who owe their allegiance to a political structure, so there is no sense of independence to the extent we have it. It becomes rather difficult to try to impart notions of independence to them. I sometimes feel a little guilty in trying to do that,” Judge Smith said.

“We are greatly blessed to have a rule of law in this country. And the linchpin of our system is an independent judiciary—judges who are neither dependent on, nor beholden to, political power as they go about exercising their decision-making authority,” explained Judge Smith. “Notwithstanding the fiscal challenges which are real, stark, and very disappointing, the United States is still a much better system than what I’ve seen anywhere else. It is why I continue to be an advocate for democracy.”

Speaking personally, Judge Smith said, “I don’t know what the next transition will be, or if there will be one, but it’s interesting to look back and see how different each of the posts were.”

When asked to comment on his greatest contribution to the judiciary, he replied, “It’s for others to say if I’ve contributed anything to the judiciary. If there’s one thing I’m proud of, it’s my work ethic. I hope that when my career is over a few people will at least say, ‘He was a hard worker and gave the taxpayers their money’s worth!’”


Ellen Foreman
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