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Former supreme court justice dies

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ATLANTA, Ga. -- George T. Smith, a veteran Georgia politician and jurist who served at the heights of all three branches of Georgia's government and continued practicing law long after he left public office, has died at the age of 93, his wife said.

Smith, who died Monday evening of natural causes, holds the unique honor in Georgia of having served as speaker of the Georgia House, lieutenant governor, and a member of the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court. Even after he stepped down from the bench in 1991, he continued practicing law until weeks before his death, friends say.

"He did just about everything -- not only in his life but his legal career," said Tyler Browning, an associate at Smith's Marietta firm Browning & Smith. "It's safe to say he wasn't cheated out of any experiences in his life."

Smith was born in Camilla on Oct. 15, 1916. He served in the Navy during World War II and then graduated from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where he was elected the student body president. After earning his law degree and serving as solicitor in Grady County, he won election to the state House for the first time in 1959.

Mike Chason, the public relations director at ABAC, interviewed Smith in 2007. Chason said that the ABAC family was lamenting the loss of one of their own.

"George T. Smith is one of the legendary figures in the history of ABAC as well as the history of the great state of Georgia," Chason said. "The ABAC family just lost one of its most distinguished members."

Chason said that Smith came to ABAC in 1939 from Hopeful High School and became the student body president during his sophomore year.

"I just loved ABAC," Smith told Chason during the interview. "If it hadn't been for ABAC, I never would have made it. I was president of the student body my sophomore year. I only had two pairs of pants the whole two years I was there."

Four years later, he became the House's speaker. But he gave up the gavel in 1967 when he was elected to Georgia's No. 2 spot as lieutenant governor, where he presided over the state Senate for four years.

He rejoined the judicial branch in 1976, serving for five years on the Georgia Court of Appeals. He then was elected to the Georgia Supreme Court, helping shape the state's legal policy from 1981 until he stepped down 10 years later. That's when he revved up his private work, tackling cases that spanned from property law to public defense.

"He was a legend in Georgia because of his compassion for what he called the 'po devils,'" said Jerry Landers, Smith's longtime friend and former law partner. "He always represented folks who needed representation. He had a compassion for folks who needed a lawyer but otherwise couldn't afford one."

"He was elected to the highest levels of three branches of state government. Nobody else can say that," Landers added.

Court of Appeals Judge John J. Ellington, who followed in Smith's footsteps to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, said Smith thrived in Georgia because he understood the state. Although Smith -- who went by George T. -- was born in south Georgia, he practiced law and campaigned in all corners of the state.

"He always remembered his roots and he had the common touch," Ellington said. "Folks throughout the state had confidence in the judicial system because they had confidence in George T."

Over the last few years, Smith still went to his Marietta law firm three times a week, abandoning any notion of retiring while zealously arguing for his clients, said Browning.

"He tried retirement a few times, but it didn't suit him," Browning said. "Whether on the farm, in the government, in the Navy or on the bench, he'd worked his whole life. He needed to constantly have something on his plate."

His wife, Joan Smith, said he'll also be remembered for something else:

"He was a fine Christian man who had a strong code of ethics and a love for his fellow man."