Griffin Smith Sr. (1885–1955)

Griffin Smith Sr. was a newspaperman, businessman, and lawyer with a strong moralist strain that he brought to an eighteen-year career as chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. More than any other chief of the court in the history of the Arkansas legal system, Smith used its appellate jurisdiction and his personal command of the court’s influence to promote what he saw as moral and ethical perfection in his adopted state. His passions were writing and crusading, which he brought to years of newspaper work, a short business career, and finally to the Supreme Court, where he delivered elegant prose, if not the most precise legal formulations.

Griffin Smith was born on July 13, 1885, in DeKalb County, Tennessee, east of Nashville, to James Robert Napoleon Smith and Ida Ellen Griffin Smith. His father died when he was seven; his mother took the children to nearby Cookeville and then died when the boy was sixteen. Griffin moved in with a distant relative, Rutledge Smith, who published the Cookeville Press and taught him the newspaper trade. The young Smith learned typesetting and reporting skills and covered eleven family-feud killings, which were common in the Tennessee Appalachians. He moved to Arkansas and on June 15, 1910, married Amelia Sheffield Daggett of Marianna (Lee County). They moved for a brief time to Bonham, Texas, north of Dallas, where he was a Linotype operator. After buying an interest in the Paragould Daily Press and the weekly Paragould Soliphone, they moved to Paragould (Greene County).

When the United States entered World War I, Smith went to France and sent regular dispatches on the war to the Paragould papers, the Arkansas Gazette, and Memphis’s Commercial Appeal. When he returned, Smith enrolled in law school at Cumberland University at Lebanon, Tennessee. He obtained licenses to practice law in Tennessee and Arkansas, then moved to California and bought and operated a daily newspaper at Paso Robles, California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where he carried on a war with the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

In 1926, Smith and his wife sold the paper and he studied law briefly at Stanford University. They returned to Marianna, her hometown, where Smith opened a law practice. Governor Harvey Parnell appointed him state comptroller in 1932. In the next twenty months, often armed with a Savage automatic pistol and occasionally resorting to fisticuffs, Smith collected $520,000 from public officials whose accounts were short and sponsored an act for the 1935 Arkansas General Assembly that required a preaudit before the state paid any charges, as well as other acts that tightened controls over state spending and collections.

Smith intended to run for governor in 1936, with plans to straighten out a government that he thought was corrupt and ineffectual, but when Attorney General Carl E. Bailey said he was running for the job, Smith decided chief justice might be the next-best course. He was elected and then reelected twice, in 1944 and 1952. As a judge, he thought practical and classical knowledge were as important as what could be gleaned from law books and precedents, and, unlike those of his colleagues, his opinions reflected more of the former and much less of the latter. In conference, he was prone to launch into long recitations from Shakespeare. A sample of Smith’s legal argot from one majority opinion runs as follows: “No single experience, no transport of rapture, no ecstasy flowing from what one hears, feels, sees, or thinks, brought to the attention by the hands of a clock or the days of a calendar, can be translated into life’s pinnacle of pleasure. Sensations of joy, the quickened pulsations that come from a pleasurable event—these are but the evidence of the capacity to love and to hope and to plan, and to be prepared for better things.”

Smith could raise constitutional rights above momentary patriotic passions, as he did early in World War II in the case of Joe Johnson, a Jehovah’s Witnesses farmer in Searcy County who was convicted of desecrating the American flag when he refused to salute it in order to get commodities for his starving family. An Arkansas law adopted at the end of World War I made it a crime to desecrate the flag. Johnson had made a short speech saying the Bible prohibited the worship of graven images, and one hand brushed the flag at the county welfare commissioner’s desk. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1940 had condoned punishing Jehovah’s Witnesses for disrespecting the flag, and the Arkansas Supreme Court condemned Johnson’s stand and upheld his conviction (Johnson v. State, 1942), citing two U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring it a criminal act to dishonor “the symbol of our national unity.” Disregarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents, Smith dissented. He said he found the farmer’s ideas about the Bible mawkish, “but while to me it appears vapid, to him it is real.” He continued: “The fact remains that we are engaged not only in a war of men, machines, and materials, but in a contest wherein liberty may be lost if we succumb to the ideologies of those who enforce obedience through fear, and who would write loyalty with a bayonet….Witch hunting is no longer sanctioned. The suspicions and hatreds of Salem have ceased. Neighbor no longer inveighs against neighbor through fear of the evil eye.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself on punishing Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1943 but without Smith’s passion. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Arkansas continued to be mistreated, sometimes violently, during World War II.

The historic confrontation of labor and management in the Southern Cotton Oil Mill Strike at Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1946, which resulted in the death of a striking union member, produced a sequence of criminal cases that reached the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Smith wrote the majority opinions in each case, first reversing the convictions of striking workers for causing the violence, then affirming their convictions after a subsequent trial, and then reversing the trial judge’s contempt citations of the Black journalists Daisy and L. C. Bates for criticizing the trial and convictions. The convictions of the Bateses, he wrote, violated the state and federal constitutions’ guarantee of liberty of the press.

Smith died on April 29, 1955, of a heart attack at a religious conference at the First Christian Church in El Dorado (Union County). He is buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Little Rock. Smith had a son and grandson of the same name who had careers in the law and journalism. Governor Sid McMath appointed the son a special justice in a case in 1951 (Hearn v. East Texas Motor Freight Lines, 241 SW2d 259). The younger Griffin Smith wrote the majority opinion; his father dissented.

For additional information:
“Griffin Smith Rites to Be Held Today.” Arkansas Gazette, April 30, 1955, pp. 1A, 2A.

“Smith Always Rigid, Human in His Rulings.” Arkansas Gazette, April 30, 1955, pp. 1A, 2A.

“State Chief Justice Griffin Smith Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, April 29, 1955, p. 1A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/20/2021

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