Arkansan to become first black chief judge of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

U.S. Circuit Judge Lavenski Smith stands Friday inside the federal courthouse in Little Rock. Smith, known as “Vence” to friends, joined the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

Nearly 15 years after being sworn in as the first black Arkansan on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Lavenski Smith of Little Rock is about to become the federal appellate court's first black chief judge.

"In my opinion, this is quite significant, and it should be noted that Arkansas is the most southern state in the 8th Circuit," U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson said recently. "On top of that," he said, "Judge Smith comes from about as far south as you can get in Arkansas -- Hope."

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, a Helena-West Helena native who is black and has been the chief judge in the Eastern District of Arkansas for almost five years, agreed. He said he feels a certain amount of pride at the irony of the 8th Circuit's first black chief judge coming from its southernmost state, which is sometimes perceived as less progressive than its northern counterparts.

Smith, 58, was in Washington early last week getting his "sea legs," as Wilson would say, for the seven-year assignment that begins March 11. That's when the seven-year term of the circuit's previous chief judge, William Jay Riley of Omaha, Neb., comes to an end.

The position largely consists of added administrative duties and doesn't relieve its holder of continuing to serve on the three-judge panels that decide appeals from the circuit's district courts in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

The chief judge position is routinely passed on to the next most-senior judge on the court who is 65 years old or younger, according to Michael Gans, clerk of the St. Louis-based court. The court currently has nine active judges and five senior judges, after the Dec. 12 death of veteran senior judge Myron Bright of Fargo, N.D.

Smith said Thursday that during his orientation in Washington, he met several people, "from IT to Budgeting," with whom he will be regularly interacting as the 8th Circuit's liaison and a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The conference consists of the chief judge of each of the nation's 12 circuits, and a number of district judges. It is chaired by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and is responsible for managing the federal judiciary's budget and overseeing rulemaking and administrative policy for courts across the country.

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Smith was 43 when he was formally sworn in as an 8th Circuit judge on Aug. 28, 2002, taking the oath of office from U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. of Pine Bluff, who in 1980 became Arkansas' first black district judge. Howard died in 2007.

Smith was appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush to replace U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Arnold of Little Rock, who remained on the court but had taken "senior status," a form of semiretirement. Arnold, for whom the federal courts building in downtown Little Rock is named, died in 2004.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1981 and marrying Trendle Scott of Camden, with whom he has two children, Smith worked as a janitor in Fayetteville before deciding in 1984 to become a lawyer.

Upon graduation from law school, he worked as a staff attorney for Ozark Legal Services for four years, representing poor people, abused and neglected children, and battered spouses seeking divorces.

He then went into private practice, and later took a job teaching business law and business ethics at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, until an acquaintance from Hope -- then-Gov. Mike Huckabee -- invited him to work in the governor's office as a liaison to regulatory agencies.

Smith, known to friends as "Vence," was one of Huckabee's first hires when Huckabee moved up from lieutenant governor to governor after the forced resignation of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 1996.

Huckabee went on to win election as governor and held the job through 2007, eventually appointing Smith, a fellow Baptist, to head the Arkansas Public Service Commission and later the Arkansas Supreme Court. After Smith lost a run for a seat on the state Court of Appeals in November 2000, Huckabee appointed him to another term on the Public Service Commission.

Smith wasn't well-known in the Arkansas legal community before then-U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson nominated him to fill the 8th Circuit vacancy in the fall of 2001, but he eventually received unanimous approval from the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, followed by a 94-3 vote on the Senate floor to confirm his nomination.

Detractors who held up his appointment for several months cited his minimal legal experience and lingering questions about his previous work. It included what he called his "limited role" on behalf of plaintiffs in a 1991 lawsuit that unsuccessfully tried to prevent most abortions at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and a two-year stint in the early '90s as the volunteer director of the Arkansas chapter of the conservative legal organization the Rutherford Institute.

Since becoming an 8th Circuit judge, Smith has written more than 600 opinions, according to the circuit's website.

He said Thursday that he is "grateful for the opportunity" to be the circuit's next chief judge, but in keeping with his modest demeanor, he declined to say much more.

Gans, the 8th Circuit clerk who in nearly 34 years has served eight chief judges -- some of them cutting short their seven-year terms to allow others the chance to serve -- said Smith's new role is "a very historic event, and we're all excited about it."

"It is a great honor," said Gans, who accompanied Smith to Washington for his initial orientation.

"He's such a nice guy, very modest and unassuming," Gans said, reflecting the comments of people who have known Smith for years. "He has the right temperament to be a judge."

Smith said that while he will soon be in a position to suggest changes on the court, he has "no initial plans" for any. If any potential needs for change arise, he said, he will "assess" them and "get input" before making a move.

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