A Lawyer Advocating for Social Justice
Issue   |   Fri, 10/18/2013 - 00:32
Photo Courtesy of Paul Smith
Smith, who has made oral arguments in 14 Supreme Court cases, is a well-known advocate of LGBT rights.

Attending Amherst in the mid 1970s, it likely would have been impossible to hide oneself from the larger political and social issues that gripped the U.S. as a whole. These issues manifested themselves at Amherst as well: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the rise of the environmental justice movement. However, while many saw and understood these issues, few actively contributed to social justice initiatives. In many ways, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s failed to capitalize on the spirit of change and social justice that emerged in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, changes that Paul Smith ’76 lived through as a child. Few internalized the legal and social implications of these national crises like Smith though, who appreciated government and law not only as a means for personal fulfillment and interest but also for creating the change in society many desperately sought; he was fascinated with it not only as a champion of its values but also a sharp critic of those values.

While many Amherst graduates enter law in one form or another, few likely see law as a means of true societal change in the way Smith does. For him, law isn’t merely a means of personal fulfillment; it is a means to national justice and to help convey the voices of those whom society often renders voiceless. And while he is mostly known for a commitment to social justice that revealed itself in Supreme Court cases over the past decade (highlighted by the Lawrence v. Texas decision of 2003 which effectively ended legal discrimination against homosexual intercourse in the U.S.) Smith’s cultivated his commitment to social justice far earlier, while he was attending Amherst College. His commitment is, in many ways, a manifestation of the simultaneous grips of activism and disillusionment on the campus in the mid-‘70s. For Smith, the discomfort with society felt by many in the ‘70s was not an excuse for disillusionment, but a call to arms, a call which he answered and which has led to his commitment to social justice through the legal sphere for the past 30 years.

The Amherst Years

At a young age, Smith was well aware of Amherst College. Although he was born in California, where he lived until the age of 11, Smith spent his older childhood years in New York and lower New England. Amherst was a popular school for his friends and fellow students, along with many Ivy League schools, but Smith was dead-set on the intimate, personal school environment that a college like Amherst could afford him. This ultimately led to his applying to Amherst Early Decision, and he was admitted to his first choice school, something which was no doubt both deeply fulfilling and daunting for Smith. At Amherst he grew attached to the Political Science Department, culminating in a choice to major in that subject, which “wasn’t a surprise” to him or others around him, Smith humorously noted. He recalls numerous classes both in the department and outside of it that influenced his political development, from Professor Earl Latham’s courses on “Constitutional Law,” which had a direct influence on his view of law, to more unexpected influences such as Professor Richard Peine’s French theater classes, which encompassed themes of anarchism. Although Smith was interested in government generally, he was not initially sure which outlet seemed most appealing to him occupationally, considering formal government, journalism and law throughout his Amherst career.

In many ways though, Smith’s personal development wasn’t only realized at Amherst. He was not only a careful observer of Amherst but also of the history of larger society, and he was deeply attuned to large-scale shifts in societal norms even at a young age. Arriving at Amherst, he was not blind to how the College was, in many ways, a microcosm of society, and his personal development and academic interests cannot be separated from larger national conversations during the turbulent ‘70s. In middle school and high school, he became attuned to the rise of the civil rights movement on a national level, as African-Americans and other racial minorities fought for rights that had been denied them throughout history. The summer before his freshman year was marked by the eruption of the Watergate scandal. This only added to public feeling that was already rampant with concerns over the Vietnam War and the government. The manifestation of national activism at Amherst was immediately apparent to Smith even before his arrival on campus. He notes that in 1972 some of “the faculty and the President had been arrested for protesting the Vietnam War at a national air-force base in Chicopee, Mass.,” something which had acquired national attention and naturally piqued Smith’s interest due to his burgeoning fascination with national politics and civil rights. He noted that soon afterward, “Watergate, as opposed to war, became the dominant issue” on campus, along with women’s rights issues, which became increasingly public in the early ‘70s. At this time, the College was considering co-education.

“Co-education was finally decided in the ‘74-‘75 school year, my junior year, but they were already meeting freshman [1972] year to decide,” Smith said. Astute about national issues and about how Amherst reflected larger society, he was well aware that the co-education debate at Amherst was merely one battle within a much larger fight for equality in society, which ultimately allowed him a lens through which to connect his personal life and Amherst education to larger civil rights issues in society.

Spending the summer of 1974 on Capitol Hill was a formative experience as well, giving him a first-hand account of not only the Nixon trial over Watergate occurring that year but also the more general governmental atmosphere of the time.
On this, Smith noted that in addition to grassroots activists, journalists and other figures, nationally, “I saw lawyers as central players in efforts at the time to make the world better.”

“I was interested in law as an instrument for making the world freer and better. When I was growing up as a young child, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and by the time I was in college the women’s movement was getting going in a big way. And I wanted to connect my interest to law with social justice,” Smith said. “It seemed as if lawyers were playing a big part in social justice efforts at the time.”

It was ultimately this that pushed Smith toward a legal route to social justice. In other words, for him, the decision to enter into law was not simply the result of inward thinking, but a thorough understanding of the conversations going on throughout the nation and at Amherst.

The Call of the Law

Upon graduating from Amherst, Smith attended Yale Law School for three years. After this, he went to work as a law clerk in Battleboro, Vt. before moving on to clerk for Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court. At this point, formal government seemed unappealing to Smith, largely due to the control of national government throughout the ‘80s by Reagan conservatives. Due to this, he continued in the legal sphere, eventually working with a “boutique” law firm in the D.C. area that specialized in constitutional law, an interest he had developed at Amherst. In 1994 he went to work for Jenner & Block, a legal firm with a reputation for specializing in First Amendment and civil rights law, two fields of law which reflected Smith’s view of law as a means to social justice and which interested Smith greatly.

Although Smith went on to make oral arguments in 14 Supreme Court cases, the one that he acknowledges he will likely be most known for, Lawrence v. Texas, is also the one he considers his greatest personal accomplishment. Although he humbly admits, “I was in the right place at the right time,” Smith was centrally responsible for arguing the 2003 case that not only ended discrimination against sodomy in Texas but also established legal precedent that effectively made homosexual sexual activity legal. Coming on the heels of a lengthy period of gay rights legislation and social activism throughout the US, Smith notes that his work in arguing for this decision would not have been possible without a larger shift in public demeanor throughout the U.S. around this time.

“This was a period in time where gay people were finally being seen as becoming full-fledged citizens. The tide was definitely beginning to change legally,” Smith said, referring to the history of rampant discrimination against LGBT populations throughout the ’80s and ’90s as well as prior. As a gay man himself, he notes that this decision and his work on reaching it meant much for the nation as well as for himself personally.

Defender of Social Justice

Although known for his work on LGBT legislation, including serving on the Board for Lambda Legal, an organization dedicated to bringing social injustices related to LGBT rights in the U.S. to court, his legal career covers many other fields as well. He has argued cases related to racial discrimination, noting “in the area of voting rights several of us decided to get involved in cases involving redrawing of voting lines, which can have a big impact on representation of minorities in larger society.” However, he has more recently become nationally known for his breaking new barriers in First Amendment legislation in the case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which effectively established the First Amendment rights of video game producers and marketers, making video games a form of constitutionally protected free speech.

Although nominally not similar to his work on Lawrence v. Texas, both cases reflect Smith’s interest in protecting the legal right to engage in actions with which many in society disagree. They also reflect the more general peculiarity of the legal sphere to inform changing social tides in the U.S. The Entertainment Merchants decision, which came in 2011, arrived at a time when video games were striving to be considered viable and legitimate art, and will help further developments in the field as developers explore greater artistry in game development.

On using law as a means to achieve social justice in larger society, Smith noted, “It’s the kind of thing I really care about. Even if it’s free work on the side.” This passion and care for changing the world manifesting professionally “can make the practice a lot more exciting.” Almost as if he were unable to remove himself from the courtroom, he does significant volunteer and pro-bono work for clients whose liberties have been restricted but cannot afford representation otherwise, primarily through serving on the board for the American Constitution Society. Expressing a desire to continue doing so even if he retires from paid legal work, Smith shows little sign of reducing his commitment to social justice anytime soon. And for Smith again, it’s as personal as it is political.

His colleague Susan Kohlmann said, “It also probably goes without saying that he has accomplished so much as an advocate and leader because he is always prepared and incredibly hardworking with a great sense of humor. But the secret ingredient to Paul’s success is that he is a genuinely nice guy — and with all the rest, that is what makes him a rare breed,” and someone who cares deeply about enacting the change he wants to see in the world around him.

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