GENTLEMAN JURIST

Soft Manner Betrays Hard Stance

By: Cynthia Krahl of The Herald-Advocate - February, 2003

He has a quick smile and a ready laugh that belie his imposing stature.

Until he enters his courtroom.

There, the grin quickly turns grim as he tends to the matters before him.

Sternness replaces any softness as he tells the young woman in front of him that if it were not for the plea agreement her attorney worked out with the prosecution, he would put her in jail for stealing from her boss.

As he sentences her to probation instead, he reminds here she is getting a break, cautions her not to waste it and warns her more strongly still, "Next time, it’s jail."

He is William Bruce Smith, the circuit judge how assigned to Hardee County.

Smith, 51, of Lakeland, began his stint here last month, replacing Circuit Judge J. Dale Durrance, who in the routine rotation of judges within the 10th Judicial Circuit was reassigned to Polk County. The 10th Judicial Circuit is comprised of Hardee, Highlands and Polk Counties.

But this is not Smith’s first time south of his native border.

Born and raised in Plant City, Smith grew to 6’-4" tall and a natural staring position on his high school basketball team. "We were in the conference with Hardee County, and we came down here to play," he remembers.

Smith was graduated from Plant City High School in 1969. Not surprisingly, he won a four-year basketball scholarship to Birmingham Southern College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

After college, he worked in he phosphate industry before signing on with the law firm his brother, Doug Smith, share with Ray McDaniel in Lake Alfred.

"I was an investigator and kind of gopher," he says. "They convinced me I needed to go back to school." So, in 1977 he did, to Sanford University’s Cumberland Law School.

"I realized I needed to advance my education beyond my bachelor’s degree, so I went to law school and pursued my law degree," attaining it is 1980, says Smith.

Upon graduation, he joined his brother’s firm. About a half-dozen years later, he opened his own private practice in Lakeland, focusing 80 percent on family law and 20 percent on criminal defense.

But he had still higher aspirations.

"When I started practicing law, we had a number of very good judges in this circuit," Smith explains. "I knew in that very first year that I would want to serve on the bench, too someday.

"I had so much respect for them" he continues, "especially those seated in the area I practiced most in, family law, and seeing what an influence the hard decisions they made had on families."

He mentions circuit judges Clifton M. Kelly, John H. Dewell, Thomas M. Langston, William Love and Gunter Stephenson as some he admired and who inspired him most.

"There were two ways to get o the bench, appointment of election," Smith notes. "I felt my best way was through election. I never felt comfortable with the appointment process."

So, in 1992 he ran for Polk County judge, unseating incumbent Irvin Cowie. He began what was then a four-year term in January of 1993. In 1996, when Smith was due to run for re-election, the State Legislature created a new circuit judgeship. Smith seized that opportunity, and ran unopposed.

He was installed as a circuit judge in January of 1997, beginning a six year term. In 2002, he was unopposed in his re-election bid.

This, he says, is the first time his circuit assignment has taken him out of Polk County, where he served mainly in family law and its related divisions.

"I was excited. I was really excited," Smith describes upon learning his next rotation would send him to Hardee Circuit Court.

"I was ready for a change, and this has really been pleasurable."

The judge says the long daily drive is the downside, the challenge of serving in all circuit divisions – civil, criminal, juvenile, family and probate – is the upside.

"I had to do some studying," he remarks. "Doing everything is a challenge, staying current on the law in all divisions."

But he remains undaunted at the enormity of his assignment here.

"Hardee County has a wonderful clerk’s office, very efficient. And the lawyers are very helpful," Smith says. "It’s a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and the clerks know most everyone who appears in court. It reminds me of Plant City."

And, in his private life, he fits in just fine. "I like to hunt and fish and I’m a Gators fan," he summarized. He also is married and a father. His wife, Gail, is a Title I administrator in the Polk County school system. His 19-year-old daughter is studying journalism at the University of Florida.

While on the bench here, he hopes to gain a reputation of being "consistent, fair and courteous," he says.

"I get great satisfaction in doing what I do," Smith says. "I think I do make a positive influence in the lives of the people who come before me.

"I strive to be courteous," the judge adds. "I try to make sure they get a good impression of our judicial system when they go out of my courtroom."

But when he leaves his courtroom, sometimes the day’s work goes with him. "Some cases I lose sleep over, wondering if I did the right thing by that child," Smith says of his toughest rulings, those for the termination of parental rights.

"But if the day ever comes that I never question any of my decisions, that is the day I should step down," the judge asserts.

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