Southwestern Community Mourns the Loss of Beloved Professor and Criminal Law Expert Karen Smith
Professor Karen R. Smith, a widely admired member of the Southwestern faculty for more than 30 years, passed away on December 5, following a courageous three-year battle with cancer.
"Karen Smith was truly the model of an inspiring and nurturing teacher and advisor to thousands of Southwestern students," Dean Susan Prager said. "Her devotion to her students was legendary, and her impact on the expansion of the law school's criminal law and trial advocacy curriculum, as well as the SCALE program, was tremendous. Karen was also a highly effective administrator and leader, and Southwestern benefited in a multiplicity of ways from her guidance. She will be greatly missed and remembered as an extraordinary educator, as well as a thoughtful and passionate advocate, a devoted friend and a pathbreaker."
Professor Smith was one of the most honored faculty members by students in Southwestern's long history as reflected in the numerous times she received the Excellence in Teaching Award, Commencement Grand Marshal honors and tributes by the Women's Law Association and Black Law Students Association. She was so highly regarded by her former students, that even after many years as successful professionals, they would continue to seek her counsel on some of their most complex cases.
Professor Smith brought to the classroom both a prosecution and defense view of criminal procedure on trial and appellate levels. After earning her undergraduate and J.D. degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, she became a member of the California State Bar in 1973 and began her career as a prosecutor in the Criminal Division of the California Attorney General's Office. Several years later, she transferred to the State Public Defender's Office and eventually to the Federal Public Defender's Office, where she was appointed Senior Deputy Federal Public Defender.
Judge James R. Dunn recalled, "I had the privilege of working with Karen in the late '70s and early '80s when I was serving as Federal Public Defender for the Central District, and Karen was a young lawyer and later a leader in the Office. Needless to say, she was a great trial lawyer. But more important, she was a wonderful person. When I think of her, the words that come to mind are grace, dignity, strength, stability and good judgment. She was highly respected by the District Judges, the prosecutors she faced and the criminal Bar in Los Angeles. And of course, she was beloved by all her colleagues in the Office."
Former student Alicia Blanco '91 literally followed in her mentor's footsteps. "Professor Smith completely transformed my notions of fairness, justice and due process," she said. "Such was her genius that the paradigm shift came not from her espousing her beliefs, but from the space she provided that forced us to examine our own. I've now been at Professor Smith's former firm, the Federal Public Defender's Office, for 22 years, working each day to live up to the ideals she challenged us to meet in Criminal Procedure."
Professor Smith joined the Southwestern faculty in 1982, originally as a clinical professor. She went on to teach the core and advanced courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and Interviewing, Counseling and Negotiating, as well as special courses for the Academic Support Program, which she helped create. She also served as faculty advisor to the PLEAS part-time day program for students with childcare responsibilities, several student organizations, and moot court and trial advocacy teams, and was instrumental in building the law school's award-winning Trial Advocacy Honors Program (TAHP).
Bill Seki '88 and Joseph Esposito '89 who became a defense attorney and a prosecutor, respectively, were encouraged by Professor Smith more than 20 years ago to come back to teach trial advocacy at Southwestern. The three of them also collaborated in establishing TAHP. "Karen's foresight, mentorship and leadership helped shape the Trial Advocacy Honors Program into what it is today," said Professor Seki. "She was the program's strongest advocate and helped insure that we had the necessary resources to succeed on a national stage."
Professor Esposito added, "Karen taught me what a truly gifted professor looks like. As TAHP's faculty advisor for many years, she shepherded Bill and me along with her charm, wit, patience and guidance while always making sure the accolades went to us and not her, even though she was more deserving. Karen is a tremendous loss to the Southwestern family."
In 1991, Professor Smith was appointed Director of SCALE®, Southwestern's two-year J.D. program, the oldest accelerated J.D. curriculum in the country. She continued to teach in SCALE as well as the traditional programs. Dean Emeritus Leigh Taylor, who originally hired Professor Smith, said, "Karen was not only an outstanding law teacher, she was also an excellent administrator who was committed to the advancement of Southwestern in any way she could possibly assist. As Director of SCALE, she infused new life into the program and worked tirelessly for more than ten years to ensure its viability and success. Through her thoughtful and direct approach, she gained the highest respect from all of us at the law school as well as the criminal justice community."
Many colleagues saw Professor Smith as a master teacher. "She was able to facilitate her students' understanding in a thousand ways both large and small," explained Professor Kelly Strader. "She balanced firmness and compassion in the classroom like no one I've ever seen. She was extraordinary."
According to Professor Isabelle Gunning, "Karen was a fabulous attorney on both sides. She brought that unique perspective to her teaching, as well as her sense of ethics and morality, and the passion she had for the profession. She was such a pillar of Southwestern, both for her students and for her colleagues on the faculty, holding all of us to the highest standard."
Professor Tara Walters emphasized what an important role model Professor Smith was for Southwestern's Black Law Students Association (BLSA). "Her guidance and support was immeasurable, and her commitment to and vision for BLSA has created countless opportunities for our BLSA students and other students of color. Karen has left a rich legacy for our entire Southwestern community to cherish and celebrate."
Professor Smith was named as the Irwin R. Buchalter Professor of Law in 1994, as the Irving D. and Florence Rosenberg Professor of Law in 2003, and as the Paul E. Treusch Professor of Law in 2006. She received the law school's Excellence in Teaching Award five times, most recently in 2011. In 2007, she was presented with the "Outstanding Friend" award by the Southwestern Alumni Association.
After entering academia, Professor Smith continued to be active in public service in numerous capacities. She served on the Federal Indigent Defense Panel, the Magistrate Judge Merit Selection Panel, the ABA Criminal Justice Section's Standards Committee, and as a lawyer representative from the Central District to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. She served as special counsel to the Webster-Williams Commission investigating the police response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and on the Los Angeles Work Group of the Ninth Circuit Gender Bias Task Force. She was also a long-time member of the boards of both the Westside Children's Center and Wildwood School.
Professor Smith lectured for many years on criminal procedure and related issues for the National Judicial College and the ABA Appellate Judges Seminars, and KABC News and other media often called on her to provide expert commentary on high profile criminal trials. She also served on the board of the California Supreme Court Historical Society. In 2008, the John M. Langston Bar Association inducted Professor Smith into the organization's Hall of Fame in recognition of her contributions to the legal profession and legal education.
Echoing many who had the privilege of learning from and working with Professor Smith, L.A. Superior Court Judge Deborah Brazil '96 said, "Professor Smith had a profound and lasting impact on my life as my professor, mentor, colleague and friend. Words cannot describe my gratitude for having her voice in my heart and in my mind. Our school community and the legal community are far better because she shared herself with us."
A memorial service for Professor Smith will be held on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 3:00 p.m. on the Southwestern campus. RSVPs are requested and may be directed to email@example.com or (213) 738-6814. Letters of condolence to Professor Smith's daughter, Kendra Elstad, may be sent to Sr. Associate Dean Doreen Heyer, who will forward them to her.
In lieu of flowers, her family has requested that donations can be made to the Professor Karen R. Smith Scholarship Endowment Fund at Southwestern. The fund will provide financial assistance to outstanding female students of color at the law school. Information regarding the fund may be obtained from Associate Dean Debra Leathers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to make a donation online (select "Prof. Karen R. Smith Scholarship Endowment Fund" in the drop-down box under Gift Designation).