George T. Smith, a man for all branches, dead at 93

Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith during a 1999 interview in his office in Marietta. AP/John Bazemore

Supreme Court Justice George T. Smith during a 1999 interview in his office in Marietta. AP/John Bazemore

The most versatile man in all of Georgia politics is gone. From the Associated Press:

George T. Smith, a veteran Georgia politician and jurist who served at the heights of all three branches of Georgia’s government and continued practicing law long after he left public office, has died at the age of 93, his wife said.

Smith, who died Monday evening of natural causes, holds the unique honor in Georgia of having served as speaker of the Georgia House, lieutenant governor, and a member of the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court. Even after he stepped down from the bench in 1991, he continued practicing law until weeks before his death, friends say.

“He did just about everything — not only in his life but his legal career,” said Tyler Browning, an associate at Smith’s Marietta firm Browning & Smith. “It’s safe to say he wasn’t cheated out of any experiences in his life.”

Smith was born in Camilla, Ga., on October 15, 1916. He served in the Navy during World War II and then graduated from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where he was elected the student body president. After earning his law degree and serving as solicitor in Grady County, he won election to the state House for the first time in 1959.

Four years later, he became the House’s speaker. But he gave up the gavel in 1967 when he was elected to Georgia’s No. 2 spot as lieutenant governor, where he presided over the state Senate for four years.

He rejoined the judicial branch in 1976, serving for five years on the Georgia Court of Appeals. He then was elected to the Georgia Supreme Court, helping shape the state’s legal policy from 1981 until he stepped down 10 years later. That’s when he revved up his private work, tackling cases that spanned from property law to public defense.

“He was a legend in Georgia because of his compassion for what he called the ‘po devils,’” said Jerry Landers, Smith’s longtime friend and former law partner. “He always represented folks who needed representation. He had a compassion for folks who needed a lawyer but otherwise couldn’t afford one.”

“He was elected to the highest levels of three branches of state government. Nobody else can say that,” Landers added.

Court of Appeals Judge John J. Ellington, who followed in Smith’s footsteps to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, said Smith thrived in Georgia because he understood the state. Smith, who went by George T., was born in south Georgia but practiced law and campaigned in all corners of the state.

“He always remembered his roots and he had the common touch,” said Ellington. “Folks throughout the state had confidence in the judicial system because they had confidence in George T.”

Over the last few years, Smith still went to his Marietta law firm three times a week, abandoning any notion of retiring while zealously arguing for his clients, said Browning.

“He tried retirement a few times but it didn’t suit him,” said Browning. “Whether on the farm, in the government, in the Navy or on the bench, he’d worked his whole life. He needed to constantly have something on his plate.”

His wife, Joan Smith, said he’ll also be remembered for something else:

“He was a fine Christian man who had a strong code of ethics and a love for his fellow man.”

For instant updates, follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

15 comments Add your comment

Grandpa Right

August 24th, 2010
4:20 pm

Another statesman gone- their numbers are dwindling fast.

I was only 10 years old when he was elected Lt. Governor, but I still remember his campaign song-
“Elect George T. Smith your lieutenant governor,
and let George do it, let George do it…”

Godspeed, Mr. Smith.

John

August 24th, 2010
4:43 pm

George T was the best a lawyer could be. We will miss you, Judge.

Julie

August 24th, 2010
4:50 pm

Justice Smith, you were a great jurist,scholar and gentleman.

Vicki

August 24th, 2010
4:58 pm

George T was the BEST… a gentle man and a true southern gentleman to all that knew him. I will always remember the kindness and respect he gave me and others. I will truly miss George T’s spirit and also his very contagious laugh.

J.D.

August 24th, 2010
5:38 pm

George T. spent a long lifetime helping others and worked many, many years in government making Georgia a better place. He understood state government like no one else, and obviously, he certainly understood very well how to go about getting elected. Here’s just one example.
The year after I was appointed to the Court of Appeals, I ran for election to a full term and had opposition. George T. helped me tremendously, particularly in one way I’ll never forget. He ran ads for me in several newspapers and had them printed the same way he’d done his own ads in all his campaigns—upside down. When anyone asked him about this “mistake”, he always had the same answer: “That was no mistake. You read it, didn’t you?”
A great public servant and a great friend to all Georgians. We’ll never see his like again.

Bubba

August 24th, 2010
6:17 pm

A man in full.

Bear

August 24th, 2010
8:33 pm

Damn good Dawg!!!

LP Kay

August 24th, 2010
8:59 pm

A wonderful, kind, respectful man and a true southern gentleman. He will be missed.

J. Richard Porter

August 24th, 2010
9:19 pm

Geo. T. came to Cairo to practice law in the late 40’s and his family and mine were friends. Upon finishing law school in the 60’s, I practiced law with Geo. T. While I was in his law firm, he was the Speaker of the House and later Lt. Gov. He taught me a lot about the practice of law and politics. Many years later when I sought elective office with opposition, I called him for suggestions for a campaign. He told me to do things that show that you will work hard and want the office, campaign early and late, always ask everybody you see to vote for you, and do things that make the public notice you. I did most of the things he told me to do and was elected. He was a great person, lawyer, judge and public servant. He will be missed.

Jeff

August 24th, 2010
11:23 pm

A man of great compassion and integrity, who was as sure footed in life as the old mule he plowed behind as a young man in Mitchell County. He will be missed by all that knew him and to know him, you had to love him.

Stephen King

August 25th, 2010
7:42 am

All Great Americans have longed to aspire as an eagle.
But few, if any, have soared longer, higher or more majestically than Justice George Thornewell Smith.
Now may the wings of angels lift him higher as he ascends from our sight.

The Snark

August 25th, 2010
10:17 am

Where are the George T. Smiths of today? People like him take one look at modern political campaigning and go back to their jobs in the private sector.

RIP: George T. Smith — Peach Pundit

August 25th, 2010
11:43 am

[...] Smith, a former Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Georgia House, passed away on Monday: George T. Smith, a veteran Georgia politician and jurist who served at the heights of all three [...]

Daniel J. Parker

August 25th, 2010
8:30 pm

Well done cousin “Thornwell”. Well done. We are all proud of your life of service. My father, Dudley Parker, grew up a country mile down the road from his boyhood friend George “Thornwell” Smith. In 1991, I took my father by to see “Thornwell” at his Ga. Supreme Court office and I watched those two 75 year old men becoming the boys that they had been back in Mitchell County, Georgia while they laughed about their boyhood times. Thank you Judge Smith for your encouragement to me when I was a young lawyer. Daniel J. Parker, Attorney & Counselor At Law, Hartwell, GA.

Michael

August 26th, 2010
12:06 am

In the late 1970’s when I was “studying law” Judge Smith told me that a problem with lawyers is they talk too much like lawyers and use fancy lawyer phrases which common people do not understand. He was right, and it has been a life lesson. A rare person who cared up til the time he moved on to the South Georgia Pines in the sky.