9/24/2006

A History Lesson, Part 1

We here at ECW have been working on an interesting new project together with our friend Firefly. It has porn, suicide, court action and, most of all, large doses of hypocrisy, holier-than-thou and (dis)honesty. (Ok, well it's almost alliteration.)

Bear with us, though. It's not something we can do in one short piece. It's going to take a little effort on the part of you, the reader, because the events at issue started 5 long years ago. And that's what today's piece is: A History Lesson, Part 1.

Mike Smartt was a lawyer here in town. He wasn't the greatest lawyer to ever live, but he was competent, honest, hard-working and fair. He did mostly divorce and family work, and did it well.

I met him when I was a young lawyer, soon after arriving here in town. A large percentage of the lawyers that do family law work are younger attorneys. Why? Well, because there is a seemingly endless supply of these cases, and older, more established lawyers usually have the pick of, shall we say, more pleasant proceedings. So, I encountered Mike and got to know him pretty well.

When I had cases with him, he always tried to help me rather than trick me or trap me. He taught me that when there are children involved it is far more important to achieve a fair result than it is to "win." He taught me that sometimes the other lawyer is more honest and reasonable than your own client. He taught me that divorce cases are not just cases, but they are about peoples' lives, and we need to treat them fairly and with respect.

Am I just exaggerating and lionizing this guy? No, these lessons are true. I remember the conversations in Mike's old office in the Montana Building, his window cracked and his ashtray sitting on the ledge above Second Avenue North, a courtesy to me in his office while he smoked and I didn't.

So, if you think about it, Mike had an ideal temperament for another job besides a lawyer. Smart, even-handed, compassionate, these are all qualities one would like to see in a judge. And, eventually, Mike found his way into the Cascade County Justice Court with our local Justice of the Peace, Sam Harris.

That's where the springtime and daisies stop. While by most accounts and my personal experience Mike enjoyed being a judge and was very good at it. Judge Smartt and Judge Harris did not get along. Judge Harris was a 'law and order guy,' he was "My way or the highway," and all that. Judge Smartt did not abide such nonsense.

For you see, Justice Court is pretty well the low man on the judicial totem pole in Montana. Oh, I suppose one could make the argument that Municipal Court is lower, but most consider them equal. Equal at the bottom. And this is no offense to the JP's and Municipal Court judges, most of whom do an excellent job, including our own Municipal Court Judge, Nancy Luth. But the best lower court judges know their place. This is not the United States Supreme Court. These judges are in a small court in a small town in a small state. The civil cases they handle are small, and the criminal cases they handle are misdemeanors.

Equal doses of common sense and compassion are far more important than a rigorous legal background. In fact, a law degree is not required to be a Justice of the Peace.

This is why Smartt was probably better suited to be a justice of the peace than law and order Harris. And, according to Smartt, Harris couldn't wait to get rid of him. And this is where our story begins to sink even lower.

More to come...

5 comments:

Treasure State Jew said...

The last few years of his life, Mike was one of my neighbors. I look forward to your next installment.

david said...

Me too -- looking forward to how this proceeds...although Aaron sorta tipped me off to at least one aspect of the story.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see that someone is going to tell this story. Too bad it won't be on the front page of the Trib. I too knew Mike. He represented me when I needed a lawyer to obtain custody of my child. We were friends for many years after the case.

Sam Harris is a dangerous man. He has far too much power as your story points out. Again, not a story reaching the front page of the paper, and the community really doesn't know the antics he engages in which is how he continues to get re-elected.

marvin said...

Yours are excellent thoughts of a good and remarkable human being - Mike Smartt.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I know how this story ends. Sad how one miserable zealot can destroy a man and his family...