Occasionally in life, one encounters a person who exerts an outsized influence on one’s life and the community in which we live, but who does it so quietly and without fanfare that we don’t realize what a huge hole has been left until after that person passes from the scene.
Such is the case with High Point attorney Mittie Smith, who died on May 15. Even though Mittie and I attended UNC Law School at the same time, she was a couple of classes ahead of me and I didn’t really get to know her until the late 1990s, when, as practicing attorneys, we attended a mediators’ training seminar together. I was impressed by her quiet earnestness and her obvious passion for helping others overcome legal obstacles.
Then, when I became a Superior Court judge in 2002, I began to interact with Mittie on a weekly basis. She was on the list to represent impoverished felony defendants who, for one reason or another, cannot be represented by the public defender’s office. This is hard, backbreaking labor involving the least fortunate in our society, and it pays a pittance when compared with what lawyers get paid to represent more well-heeled clients. I cannot tell you the number of times I witnessed her handle her clients’ cases with poise and professional zeal. She was able to take her life experiences as a former social worker and as a mediator to assist her clients in making what were often difficult choices. But Mittie also didn’t suffer fools, and I can recall several times when she told her clients some uncomfortable truths they didn’t want to hear but were ultimately better off for having heard it from her.
As we came to know each other over the years, I sometimes confided in her my doubts as to whether I had done proper justice in a case, and she was always there to prop up my sagging spirits, or to render a helpful word of advice. Being a judge can be a lonely job, particularly if one cares about trying to do the right thing, and Mittie became my guiding star as she helped me navigate between those often-competing goals of handing down just punishments yet showing mercy when mercy was due. She always reminded me that the downtrodden have the same rights under our laws and Constitution as the most powerful citizens.
Mittie also was a quiet, determined leader in the High Point community. As the first Black woman to serve as president of the High Point Bar Association, Mittie helped to spearhead service projects and raise the legal profession’s awareness of, and participation in, numerous worthy local causes. Her role in garnering greater bar association participation in Habitat for Humanity and her passionate service as a volunteer and leader in the Open Door Shelter are only a few examples.
There are so many praiseworthy things I could say about Mittie, but time and space won’t permit it. Suffice it to say that she was a leader and role model in my life and in the life of our community, who usually went about performing her good deeds anonymously and with no expectation of praise from anyone. As I now come to this realization, it is too late to tell her. But I will never forget her.
Joe Craig is senior resident Superior Court judge for Guilford County.