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State Bar’s top honor goes to
social justice advocate Gary Smith

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Gary Smith
Gary Smith

Assemblymember Dave Jones knows precisely why Gary Smith, executive director of the Yolo County Office of Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC) deserves the 2010 State Bar Loren Miller Legal Services Award: “His work has benefited countless numbers of low-income families and individuals. He has mentored and trained many young attorneys. And he has for many years led one of the best legal aid programs in the country, during periods when legal aids were under assault by the federal government and others.”

Smith received the prestigious State Bar honor, which recognizes a lawyer who has demonstrated long-term commitment to legal services and who has personally done significant work in extending legal services to the poor, at last month’s Annual Meeting.

“I feel quite unworthy and quite humbled,” Smith said. “I have been extremely privileged to work with incredibly dedicated, talented and committed folks both within my own program and with other public interest lawyers and private attorneys working for pro bono cases.” His award, he said, is the result of “collaborative efforts.”

The award reflects not only the good that Smith has done as a legal aid lawyer, but who he is, say his friends. “Deep down at his core what drives Gary is that he cares passionately about people – his family, his friends, his co-workers, his neighbors, his clients and his community,” says Neil Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County.

A recipient of joint degrees in law and divinity from Yale University, Smith has been with LSNC for more than two decades. In that time, he has served as managing attorney, director of litigation and executive director. Smith says his interest in social justice issues led him to religious studies and in turn to the law. “Pursuing the social justice principles that I think all major religions emphasize also led me to look at ways to be effective in bringing about social change for poor and disadvantaged people, and that led me to the law.”

Dudovitz calls Smith a “leader among leaders . . . Gary has become one of the most thoughtful and creative thinkers about the effective role for legal services in 21st century America.” Smith’s colleague at LSNC, William Kennedy, cites what he calls an act “of exceptional courage”: Smith volunteered to be the plaintiff against the Legal Services Corporation in challenging 1990s congressional restrictions imposed on legal aid. “It was challenging because the national legal services community had just narrowly survived total annihilation in Congress and there were many reasonable people in the community who believed that turning around and challenging the constitutionality of those restrictions was politically not the most expedient thing to do,” recalls Smith, who eventually prevailed and the worst of the restrictions were lifted. “I think it did demonstrate to the national community that it was okay to stand up and fight for what you believe in,” Smith says.

And fortunately, he adds, attitudes toward legal aid have changed. “It certainly is a different atmosphere at the Legal Services Corporation and in Congress than it was in 1994-95. Not only are he and his legal aid brethren grateful for “some decent funding increases” but also for movement toward lifting restrictions on attorneys’ fees.

Smith has been counsel in dozens of successful court cases, including ones resulting in prompt restoration of underpaid benefits for Food Stamp recipients, the loosening of restrictions on the kind of work federally funded legal services organization could undertake and one before the U.S. Supreme Court that interpreted the complex interrelationship between the Equal Access to Justice and Social Security acts. He also was lead counsel in Frye v. Tenderloin Housing Clinic, in which the California Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that would have prevented most legal services and public interest law organizations from practicing law as non-profit organizations.

He has helped draft state legislation ranging from creating a pilot program making civil counsel a right for indigent defendants in critical-need cases and requiring financial institutions to offer higher-interest rates for IOLTA (Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts) to creating a check-off box on lawyers’ dues statements to donate to the Justice Gap Fund. In addition, Smith has created a community economic development program to help build affordable homes and a race equity project to identify and eliminate race disparities in the institutions and systems used by LSNC clients.

“His tremendous talent and skill as a lawyer, coupled with his deep and abiding commitment to helping low-income families and individuals, make this a well-deserved award,” said Assemblymember Jones.