On July 18, 1988, Charles Z. Smith became the first African American to serve on the Washington Supreme Court. He was appointed to the court by Washington’s then Governor Booth Gardner and was subsequently elected to his position on the court for a two-year term in 1988. Justice Smith was elected thereafter to full six-year terms in 1990 and 1996. Justice Smith was never opposed in any of his elections. He retired from the court on December 31, 2002.
When Governor Gardner appointed Charles Smith to the Washington Supreme Court, he hoped that the new justice, who was noted for his “mediator-conciliator type of personality,” could bring the often sharply divided court closer together. Justice Smith’s voting record on the court indicated that he met the governor’s expectations. In his first two years on the court, Justice Smith wrote twenty-five opinions and of that number, eighteen were unanimous opinions, a percentage that far exceeded that of the full court. During his entire career on the court, Justice Smith showed a tendency to be the swing vote in many cases and he rarely dissented.
Charles Z. Smith was born in Lakeland, Florida in 1927. His father was Cuban. His mother was African American. He graduated from Temple University in 1952 and from the University of Washington School of Law in 1955. His first employment, following graduation from law school, was as a law clerk for Washington Supreme Court Justice Matthew W. Hill (1955). He, thereafter, served as a deputy prosecuting attorney for King County (1956-60) where he distinguished himself by successfully prosecuting labor leader Dave Beck. Smith also served as a special assistant to United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1960-64) to investigate corruption related to Teamster Union pension funds. Smith brought an indictment in Chicago, Illinois against Teamster Union President James Hoffa. Charles Z. Smith resigned from the Justice Department to help Robert Kennedy run for the United States Senate from New York.