A memory of Conrad Smith

Conrad Smith, who worked in environmental protection for the state of Vermont for many years, died two weeks ago. Because I knew him before he came to Vermont, I shared this story at his memorial service yesterday. Conrad did great things, and he will be missed. 

As a lawyer, a piece of advice I would give just about anyone is: try not to get thrown in jail. Especially if you’re a lawyer.

I first met Conrad Smith in Michigan back in the mid-70’s, before I went to law school. I was a tenants’ rights activist and Conrad was running the Landlord-Tenant Clinic in downtown Detroit.

The Landlord-Tenant Court in Detroit was in the Lafayette Building, which has since been demolished, and the Clinic was across the hall. Tenants would line up every morning before their eviction hearing in the hopes of getting a student attorney to defend them. The purpose of the landlord-tenant court was to evict poor families from their homes as expeditiously as possible, and the purpose of the Clinic was to defend those tenants’ rights to decent housing and prevent evictions whenever possible. Because of the high volume of cases, only a small number of the tenants would get representation; the remainder would appear in court by themselves and be ordered to leave in ten days.

Soapy Williams, former governor, heir to the Mennen toiletries fortune, and chief justice said in the opinion he wrote for the Michigan Supreme Court in one of Conrad’s successful appeals:

The atmosphere of the Detroit Landlord-Tenant Court where these cases originated does not encourage deliberate, reasoned and compassionate justice, although it deals with one of the basic material essentials of life, a roof over one's head. Judges, litigants and court personnel are harassed and depressed. In many cases both the landlords and tenants are barely making it financially, and oftentimes they are not making it at all. Cases involve housing conditions that are not the most desirable. Consequently, relations are often strained and not infrequently beyond the breaking point. Many of the tenants do not understand their rights at all, although some understand them too well. Sometimes landlords are in the same posture. It would be difficult to handle these cases with justice in the best of circumstances. But circumstances are far from the best. The case load is incredible. The court facilities are just a little better than tolerable. Matters that can be avoided are avoided. This may be what generated this case but is not in issue here. Operation under such conditions obviously causes need for appeal from time to time.

There was open hostility between the Clinic and the court about some of the most basic elements of due process, like whether a tenant could get a court reporter to make a record of the court’s proceedings without paying a fee. This is the context in which Conrad had to go into the courtroom one morning asking to look at a client’s file, because the student representing the client was sure that the judge had fabricated what the tenant had agreed to in court.

Eviction hearings were done for the morning, and as he asked for the file, the judge said, “What do you want the file for?”

“You Honor, I just wanted to look at one of the entries in the file.”
“You’re calling me a liar!”

“No, Your Honor, I just wanted to see what was entered in the file.”
“You’re calling me a liar, and you have five minutes to prove it.”

 

Conrad left the courtroom, not really sure what to do. After five minutes of pacing he returned, asking the judge, “Your Honor, what is the nature of these proceedings?”
“These are contempt proceedings, Mr. Smith.”

“Your honor, if these are contempt proceedings I am entitled to representation.”

The judge, pointing to the student attorney sitting next to him: “She’s your attorney.”

“No, Your Honor, I am entitled to counsel of my choice. She is not my attorney. I will not proceed without counsel of my choice.”

“Take him away,” and with that Conrad was led away to jail.

It being a Friday, Conrad was looking at a weekend in jail, but calls to some local attorneys obtained representation before a higher judge, so he was out within hours.

The following Monday he was back at the office and, representing a carefully selected client who had been made aware of the situation, back in court. The same judge looked at him and asked what he was doing there.

“I’m representing my client.”
“You can’t represent anyone. You’re not in good standing in this court.”
“As far as I know I am, Your Honor.”

“Take him away.”

The case went up on appeal, and the Michigan Court of Appeals ruledthat not only was the court wrong in holding Conrad in contempt, it also found that the Landlord-Tenant Court was denying the tenants’ their rights by refusing to provide court reporters without paying a charge for it.

 

I still think “Try not to get thrown in jail,” is good advice, but that day Conrad Smith taught us something important. Getting thrown in jail is not the worst thing that can happen. Failing to stand up for your client, when you’re right and you’re the only person who will, is worse.

One thought on “A memory of Conrad Smith

  1. Despite the fact that “lawyers” is the punchline of many, many jokes about callous exploitation, the very many generous legal professionals who stand between the hapless and the all too arbitrary reach of the law must number among humankind’s nobility.

    Nice story telling, Jack!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *