Chesterfield Smith; ABA Head During Watergate

July 18, 2003

Chesterfield Smith, 85, a prominent Florida lawyer who, as president of the American Bar Association in 1973, became a critic of President Richard Nixon’s efforts to avoid the stains of the Watergate scandal, died July 16 in a hospital in Coral Gables, Fla., after a heart attack.

Mr. Smith, who was the bar association’s president in 1973 and 1974, denounced Nixon after the chief executive fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus, who had refused to fire Cox. Nixon also abolished the special prosecutor’s office.

The day after what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Mr. Smith, a longtime corporate lawyer who had supported Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns, released an American Bar Association statement.

It said, “No man is above the law,” and urged that an independent special prosecutor be employed to investigate the president. The quote and the bar association’s position was carried on scores of newspaper front pages across the country.

Mr. Smith called on Congress to reestablish the special prosecutor’s office. A former American Bar Association president, Leon Jaworksi, became the new special prosecutor and continued to probe presidential abuse of power.

Mr. Smith recalled, in a 1999 interview with the Associated Press, that “the justice system was being torn down by Nixon’s actions.”

Before being becoming American Bar Association president, Mr. Smith served as president of the Florida Bar Association and on the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission.

Mr. Smith was born in Arcadia, Fla. The man who became an early champion of civil rights and pro bono legal work for the poor, and who was a mentor to women in the legal profession, sometimes described himself as “a cracker from Arcadia.”

He was a World War II Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Florida and its law school.

Beginning in the 1950s, he represented the phosphate industry and citrus growers, and was instrumental in mergers that resulted in the firm Holland & Knight, which he chaired for many years. The firm, which had more than 1,200 lawyers, became the country’s eighth largest, with 32 offices across Florida, in the District, and elsewhere in this country and overseas.

He was the recipient of many awards. In 1969, he was named “Distinguished Floridian of the Year” by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. In 2002, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presented him with the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award. Legal Services of Greater Miami has named its headquarters building in his honor.

Mr. Smith, who knew and worked with the leading Florida movers and shakers and advised some of the leading corporations of his time, never lost sight of the real meaning of the law.

Once, addressing a group of law students on the role of the American Bar Association, he said: “We are not a trade association. We are not a union. We are out to improve justice and its administration of society. If you don’t intend to work to improve the quality of justice, then I hope you flunk your exams.”

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