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Judge Smith retiring but not quitting

As he turns 70, chief judge must step down, but plans to continue as senior jurist

Chief Judge of the 3rd Circuit D. Brooks Smith, seen in his Duncansville office, will turn 70 on Saturday, which requires him to step aside as chief judge. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Former Blair County and U.S. District Judge D. Brooks Smith has stepped down from the position as Chief Judge of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

But, Smith emphasized, he is not retiring as an appeals court judge.

He has hired law clerks and staff for the next two years and intends to take on a caseload despite his new status as a senior judge.

“I enjoy writing opinions, hearing cases. That’s what judges do,” Smith said as he discussed his future. “I prefer being a judge and deciding cases.”

Although he maintains that he wants to continue hearing cases and participating on panels of judges that decide specific cases, Smith over the years has taken on administrative duties at all levels of the court at which he has served.

Chief Judge of the 3rd Circuit D. Brooks Smith is pictured in his office in Duncansville. He will be stepping down as chief judge, but plans to continue as an appeals court judge. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

He dealt with administrative issues while serving as a Blair County judge from 1984-88.

In 1988, he became a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania and ended up being the chief administrative officer of that court in 2001 and 2002.

Smith then was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2002 for a position as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

In 2016, he assumed the role as chief judge, but will give up chief judge’s role as of today. His 70th birthday is Saturday.

He said he was required, at age 70, to step aside as chief judge.

The new chief of the 3rd Circuit is Michael A. Chagares, who came to the appeals court after service with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New jersey.

In a release from the 3rd Circuit, Smith was quoted as saying, “Mike Chagares brings to his new post a deep reservoir of goodwill. He is well-liked by all — both by his colleagues and court staff … that affection and respect is a priceless personal asset.”

In an interview this past week, Smith called Chagares “a good guy.” Chagares has been a 3rd Circuit judge since 2006.

Smith said he had several options that he could pursue upon becoming a senior judge.

He could have “outright retired” or assumed inactive status, which means he could remain a judge but not hear new cases.

Smith elected the third option, which was to take a caseload.

In his position as the chief judge, Smith said he faced many challenges, particularly the past two years.

He was responsible for keeping the courts operating throughout the 3rd Circuit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He noted there were “budgeting challenges” as well, and he had to make staffing decisions.

Now, he said, “I’m going to be spending all of my time deciding cases and writing opinions,” tasks which he said he is looking forward to.

Smith will be busy

Smith said he does not have a lot of hobbies. He doesn’t play golf and he no longer goes fishing.

As he becomes a senior judge, he said he will focus on his “legal outlets,” which are many.

The 3rd Circuit hears federal cases from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands.

He said he will begin the new year by sitting in the Ninth Circuit, the nation’s largest Circuit Court that hears cases from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, Arizona, Hawaii and Guam.

Throughout the years, he has taught at Penn State’s Law School, but now he will become a “jurist in residence.”

According to Penn State, that new title will enable Smith “to spend more time teaching and advising the university’s law students.”

He said he is looking forward to his enhanced Penn State experience.

Smith is a graduate of Penn State Dickinson Law School, and, as he explained, “It is energizing and refreshing having new, young minds, to talk to (about the law),” he said.

Teaching has been another aspect of his life that Smith enjoys.

As a member of the 3rd Circuit, Smith traveled to many parts of the world in an effort to explain the American justice system and to encourage other nations to adopt America’s judicial precepts.

The judge, for instance, visited Russia and in 2001, hosted Russian jurists at his Altoona home.

That was a time when Russian President Vladamir Putin was regarded as progressive, opening Russia to the world.

Smith, with his sense of wry humor, said, “you see where that got us.”

The judge also is a member of a 3rd Circuit’s “Courts, Community and Rule of Law Committee.”

The committee has put together an effort to help the public understand the role of the courts and how the state and federal courts interact.

There is a “terrible lack of understanding” of the courts, Smith said.

Judges are “not politicians in robes,” he emphasized.

Their focus is on the law and he will be involved in the effort to make the public understand that idea.

According to the Committee’s mission statement, “Programs will be designed to improve court literacy and to put a face on the judiciary to improve understanding of the role that the judicial system plays in our democracy.”

He said the courts want to reach throughout the six districts of the 3rd Circuit … to older people, college groups, working people, Rotary clubs … “to any group we can to explain the role of the courts.”

A long career

Before entering into public life, Smith was an attorney with the Altoona law firm that included Robert C. Jubelirer, who eventually went on to serve in the Pennsylvania Senate and as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.

Jubelirer said he knew Smith from the time he was 14 years old and from the beginning he said it was obvious that the judge was headed for “bigger and better things.”

“He is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known,” Jubelirer said when asked about Smith’s career.

“He is so good with people. He listens to people. He’s a leader. He’s an outstanding jurist, so respected. If every judge could be like him it would be a better world,” Jubelirer said.

Smith, upon graduating from law school in 1976, joined the Jubelirer law firm but almost from the beginning he steered toward public service.

He was a Blair County assistant district attorney beginning in 1977.

In 1981, he was appointed as a special assistant attorney general and joined the Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney George Parry in conducting a multi-year grand jury investigation into organized crime in the Altoona area.

That investigation led to multiple prosecutions for hundreds of crimes, including murder.

In 1983, Smith became Blair County District Attorney, a position he held until his appointment to the federal bench in 1988.

As chief judge of the 3rd Circuit, he also serves on the seven-member executive board of the United States Judicial Conference.

That put him in a position where he dealt with policy issues facing the federal courts throughout the United States.

That was “interesting and challenging work,” he said.

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