Judge David N. Smith spent 23 years teaching students at East Central University, covering subjects such as American government, legal research and constitutional law.
In 1990, Smith launched a full-time legal practice in Ada. He originally specialized in family, Social Security and elder law because they offered opportunities to help people. He later found there were not enough elder-law cases to justify specializing in that area, so he branched out into probate law.
“In family law, you’re doing things like guardianships, adoptions, divorce, custody, visitation, child support issues,” he said Wednesday. “You’re trying to help, in many cases, children — make sure the children are taken care of in guardianship cases and custody cases.
“And in Social Security, you’re helping people with disabilities to petition to get benefits under the federal act that would allow them to live a simple but adequate life and provide medical care for their disabilities.”
Now, Smith is applying his skills in a new area.
Smith, 62, recently moved to Claremore to accept an appointment as a special district judge for the 12th Judicial District. He was sworn into office Sept. 27 at the Rogers County Courthouse.
Smith is one of six judges in the 12th Judicial District, which covers Rogers, Mayers and Craig counties. He is assigned to the family law docket, reflecting his experience in that field.
Smith said he applied for the position because it represented another opportunity to serve Oklahomans.
“I’m using the set of skills that I’ve developed over the more than 30 years I’ve been an attorney, and I’m using those skills in a different way,” he said. “Formerly, I was an advocate for my clients, and now I’m listening to advocates advocate for their clients and then making a decision between the advocates.”
As a district judge, Smith typically arrives at his office by 8 a.m. and remains at work until 5:45 or 6 p.m. each day. He handles three dockets each week — temporary orders, protective orders and pretrial conferences.
He said his experience as a family law attorney is useful on the bench because he understands the substance of the law as well as procedural issues.
“I’m not trying to overstate my skills, but I think I have a pretty good idea of the law in that area,” he said. “As a result, I think it’s a lot easier for somebody like me, and I think that’s kind of what they were looking for when they decided to go outside of the pool of local attorneys and bring in somebody that has had family law experience.”
The judgeship was vacant for nearly two months before Smith accepted the position, which created a backlog of family law cases to be heard. Another judge handles some of those cases but they are only part of that judge’s workload.
Smith said he will focus on the family law docket until the old cases are resolved, but he will take on additional assignments as needed.
He said his experience as a family-law attorney, which reminded him that someone needs to stand up for children in the legal system, has shaped his perspective as a judge.
“If you’ve really worked in family law long enough, you know that to some extent, the adults have somebody to represent them,” he said. “They have attorneys, usually, and if they don’t have attorneys, at least they’re adults and they can to a large extent help themselves.
“But the children are often the ones who are just kind of lost in the system, unless there’s an environment in place to allow children to be protected and be in an environment where they can prosper.”
Smith said he learned a lot from Pontotoc County’s three judges and from other attorneys. His mentor was Bob Bennett, a colleague with 50 years’ experience who was once named the state’s outstanding attorney.
Smith said Bennett was an honest man, a true Southern gentleman and a diligent advocate for his clients.
“‘Just a really down-to-earth, great, decent guy,” Smith said.