Throughout his 31-year career in the Milwaukee County Clerk of Court’s office, Jim Smith developed quite the following.
Courthouse employees would come out of the woodwork every season to enjoy the fruits of his garden. He became known for baking the best carrot cake.
And while Smith may have been manning the front lines in a courthouse more than 70 miles away, the Wisconsin Supreme Court repeatedly sought his help on matters such as developing small-claims forms.
“They knew Jim,” said Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett. “They knew his knowledge and that he would be a good addition to various committees. I always used to tell people as far as civil procedure at the state level, I doubt there was anyone who knew it as well as he did.”
In fact, among Barrett and his staff, there was a running joke to see if they could stump him – which rarely happened.
But the justices weren’t the only ones who sought out Smith and his deep knowledge. Attorneys and pro se litigants asked specifically for his help – and still ask him for it despite his having retired in June.
“Some are just particularly fond of him because Jim, in addition to being a good legal mind, was a good listener,” said Barrett. “He was just able to hear what people were trying to say even when they weren’t that articulate in saying it. That’s a special knack.”
For Smith, listening, patience and compassion are all part of what workers in the clerk’s office do: recognizing people’s difficulties and overcoming them as best they can.
It’s something he picked up from years of working on the front lines in the clerk’s office, particularly when, in the early 1990s, he was deputy clerk for then-Chief Judge Patrick Sheedy.
“It really hit home,” Smith said. “You’re standing face-to-face with someone who maybe has their kids with them, and they’re in tears — and you really start recognizing how important that is.”
Smith was also instrumental in making various changes to the court system. He was part of a committee that met in 2001 to develop the rules for a statewide electronic-filing system – a project that is starting to wrap up. Currently, all 72 counties have gone paperless for certain case types.
Although Smith was civil division administrator, he played a role in developing the Milwaukee Justice Center, a project aimed at helping pro se litigants navigate the legal system.
“I really just hope that I was able to help make the court system a little better along the way,” he said.