Peter S. Smith ’60 died on February 14, 2015, in Durham, New Hampshire.
(The following was provided by family)
Peter Sheridan Smith, an attorney who assisted in the preparation and defense of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Act of 1965, and who was the first legal services lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court, died on February 14th at his home in Durham, New Hampshire at the age of 76. The cause was lymphoma.
Mr. Smith spent his 50-year career delivering legal services to those who traditionally have been denied access—African Americans and other people of color, the poor, juveniles, and those with disabilities. As a member of the elite Appeals and Research Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, Smith wrote and argued appeals in some of the most significant cases in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. It was during that time that Smith met Marjorie Kester, who was working as special assistant to the first chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. They were married by Judge Harold Greene, who had directed the Appeals and Research Section.
In 1966, Smith became the first attorney of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program of Washington, DC—the nation’s first civil appellate legal services program. He argued before the Supreme Court of the United States the landmark case Shapiro v. Thompson that brought an end to welfare residency requirements. The work he did in public housing and welfare reform continues to this day to affect the quality of lives of those people who are dependent upon government policy for their very survival.
Having concluded that lack of access to effective legal representation required the participation of the private sector, Smith engaged in a groundbreaking effort at the Baltimore law firm of Piper and Marbury. The white shoe firm hired Smith in 1969 to open and direct a branch office in Baltimore’s inner-city dedicated exclusively to representing poor individuals—the first program of its kind in the United States. Under his leadership, the office became a model for a number of other law firms in the country and was the subject of a book: The New Private Practice: A Study of Piper & Marbury’s Neighborhood Law Office.
In 1972, Smith joined the faculty at the University of Maryland Law School and created one of the first clinical legal education programs in the nation, in which students practiced law in a full-time basis with their professor. The law students represented children who were being prosecuted in the Baltimore juvenile court and whose parents had little or no financial resources. Under Smith’s direction, the clinic students litigated a case in the United States Supreme Court, involving the rights of juveniles not to be tried more than once for the same offense. It was the first appearance before that Court by a law school clinical program.
The last twenty years of Smith’s legal career focused on representing children with disabilities in their effort to obtain appropriate special education services from public school districts.
In an apt summary of Smith’s legal career, Baltimore Judge Robert Hammerman once wrote in a Court Opinion: “Recognition is the last thing which Mr. Smith would seek, and this is even more reason why it is due him. Mr. Smith is an excellent lawyer, a vigorous and able advocate, but above all one who has a keen social conscience and who has dedicated his considerable talents and abilities to fulfilling the calls and demands of that conscience. This Court and our entire community is in his debt and we are fortunate to have him in our midst.”
Smith graduated from Philips Exeter Academy in 1956. He was pictured on the cover of the Phillips Exeter Bulletin in 1953 with his pet raccoon. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1960 and remained an active and loyal alumnus until his death, focused in particular on recruiting students of color to attend Bowdoin. In 1989 he received Bowdoin’s Alumni Service Award. Smith was a fifty-year member of the New Hampshire Bar Association.
In 1990, Smith and his wife moved back to his childhood home in Durham, New Hampshire and he practiced law there until 2014. During that time, he served two terms on the Durham Town Council, in addition to extensive service on Durham’s Planning Board and Conservation Commission. In his spare time, Smith was an avid hiker, summiting Mt. Katahdin annually for 60 years. He is survived by his wife of forty-eight years, Marjorie; children Douglas and Abigail; and three grandchildren.