The Flagler County Courthouse and the Seventh Judicial Circuit welcomed Circuit Judge Ray Lee Smith to the bench today. The newly-appointed jurist officially started at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnell where he has been assigned. Gov. Rock Scott appointed Lee on April 22.
Smith, 43, a Ponte Vedra Beach resident, presides over family law cases in Division 47 and fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge J. David Walsh earlier this year. Smith was not in action today and won’t be tomorrow. According to the clerk of court’s docket, he holds dependency hearings on Wednesday in Courtroom 301.
“The reason why I really put my name into this is because I believe that circuit court judges and judges in general are kind of the linchpin that keep our practice in keeping civility, maintaining civility within the legal profession,” Smith told the Judicial Nominating Commission, which interviewed all applicants for the position before Gov. Rick Scott made the appointment. “We struggle constantly with public perception, and so judges are the ones who have to maintain civility in a courtroom, make sure that people who come before the court, who come before the court themselves, have their issues treated fairly, equitably, and I feel like I’m the person who kind of embodies those things.”
He does not plan to move from Ponte Vedra Beach, where he recently bought a house. His children attend the St. Johns County school system, which consistently ranks atop the state’s charts in quality. “My goal would be to commute to wherever I’m placed,” he said. (“People don’t move out of St. Johns County,” a commission member said during Smith’s interview.)
He described his life of hard work, starting with landscaping at age 13, and subsequently treating opposing counsel fairly when he was an assistant state prosecutor, though he has never worked in private practice–an absence of experience that elicited a concerned question from one of the commission members. “I get the idea of what small businesses go through,” he said. On the other hand, the commission member who vetted his interactions in the workplace noted his near-universal good reputation, whether with opposing counsel or colleagues or families of victims. He attributes that to good communication.
Smith joins Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman, who handles criminal law, and County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens, who handles misdemeanors. Two other judges have been hearing cases on a part-time basis in Flagler: Scott DuPont and Margaret Hudson.
He will be paid the same rate as all circuit judges in Florida this year: $146,000. He was paid $88,000 a year as an assistant state attorney. He listed his net worth this year at $437,600 in his application for the judgeship.
“I am honored and excited to take the bench in the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Flagler County. Having worked and lived in Volusia and St. Johns counties as a lawyer, it is fitting that I begin my career on the bench here in the center for the Seventh Circuit,” Judge Smith said Monday in a release issued by the Seventh Circuit, which covers Flagler, Volusia, St., Johns and Putnam. “I know the work will be challenging but rewarding and I look forward to serving the citizens of the Seventh Judicial Circuit.”
Before his appointment, Judge Smith served as an Assistant State Attorney and the Chief of the Traffic Homicide Division for the Fourth Judicial Circuit since 2009. He previously served as an Assistant State Attorney for the Seventh Judicial Circuit from 2007-2008 and as legislative counsel for Congressman Ander Crenshaw in Washington, D.C. from 2002-2007. He received his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and his juris doctor from the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville.
In his application for the circuit court appointment, Smith noted a 1990 incident, when he was 18 and living in Maryland, when he said he sustained a concussion, lost consciousness, then, instead of remaining at the scene when he awoke, “disoriented and confused,” as he described himself, drove home. He was planning to return to the scene but a police officer showed up at his door and he was later taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a concussion. “I was never taken into custody but I was issued a uniform traffic citation that required appearance in court,” he wrote in his application. “I knew that my failure to remain at the scene was wrong and I took responsibility for my action. I apologized to the couple in the vehicle I hit and pled no contest to the charge. I received a withhold of adjudication and community service hours at the Frederick County landfill as the disposition.”
He added: “As a prosecutor, I have drawn from this incident and used it to temper me as I make prosecutorial decisions, particularly in cases involving youthful offenders. If selected to become a member of the judiciary, this incident will continue to guide me in making decisions from the bench.” (His application also include glowing recommendation letters for his nomination for a 2014 Mothers Against Drunk Driving award, among others.)
An investiture, a ceremony during which a judge formally receives a judicial robe and takes the oath of office, is planned for this summer.
R. Lee Smith’s Judicial Nominating Commission Interview: