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Interview of the Month

An Interview with Hon. Mary H. Smith

Susan L. Pollet
Chair of the Archive and Historian Committee

Q: When did you become a member of the WWBA and why?

A: I started going to meetings in 1985 and membership followed.  Joining the WWBA, for me, was (and still is) a must for women attorneys. It provided information, support, and important networking contacts. Through the WWBA I met lifelong friends and colleagues. Valued colleagues today are Judges Joan Lefkowitz (JSC), Linda S. Jamieson (JSC), and Terry Jane Ruderman (JSC and former President of the White Plains Bar Association) who were early members.  Without the benefit of WWBA meetings, I would never have met some of my closest friends, Sandra Forster (Ret. Greenburgh Town Court Justice and former President of the White Plains Bar Association), Judge Ingrid Braslow (Ret. Family Court Judge and former President of the White Plains Bar Association), and Melinda Bass (WWBA delegate, strong advocate, defender of women attorneys and lifelong feminist, now deceased).  Every single one of us owes a great debt to Hon. Sondra M. Miller (Ret. JSC, Appellate Division, Second Department and former President of the WWBA) who was always there to give advice and encouragement.

Q: Please tell us about your career and why you decided to be a judge?

A: My earlier career path as a reporter and editor led directly to my interest in the law.  After college, I worked as a writer and reporter for a number of nationally known magazines. I traveled throughout the country. During the 80’s I wrote articles about women’s struggles, about the plight of the poor, and the issues facing the African-American community. My interest in social injustice for women and in civil rights eventually led me to become a judge.

      I enjoyed several exciting years in journalism, but came to the point that I felt I needed a change. I wanted to meet my own challenges and not just write about the feats and struggles of others. I needed to move forward and law school beckoned.  Despite my friends’ dire warnings, “We have too many lawyers already,” I entered Hofstra Law School at 31years old. I graduated three years later with high honors and a plan to specialize in criminal trial work.

      An appointment as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office was my first step as a lawyer.  I remained an ADA for 10 years and tried many cases; I loved it. Since I was one of the few women trial lawyers there, many of those cases centered on sex crimes.

      I lived in Yonkers and then learned there was an open elective position of Yonkers City Court Judge. I knew nothing about local politics, but I learned.  I won the nomination for Yonkers City Court Judge and I won the race.  My races for County Court Judge and Supreme Court Judge were natural progressions.   Each time I faced the challenge of obtaining political nomination and of winning.  And each time, I loved the challenge.  I am so grateful to have attained the position of Supreme Court Judge, which to me is the highest honor and most rewarding position I’ve ever had.  And I credit the WWBA for helping to pave the way to these achievements.

Q. What are the most significant decisions, which you have rendered as a judge?

A: I will mention a few:

  • San Marco v Village/Town of Mount Kisco (16 N.Y.3d 111 [2010]) & Groninger v Village of Mamaroneck (17 N.Y.3d 125 ([2011]): determined motions for summary judgment regarding defendant municipalities defenses of no prior notice defense
  • Porcari v Gannett (50 A.D.3d 993 [2d Dept 2008]): found that an Assistant Corporation Counsel in Yonkers was not a public figure when he sued for defamation
  • Skywest Inc. v Ground Handling Inc. (150 A.D.3d 922 [2d Dept 2017]): found that the Airport Terminal Agreement entered into between plaintiff and defendant relieved the defendant County and its agents of liability from their own negligence in “unequivocal terms” and was enforceable
  • Damon v Fortis Benefits Ins. Co. (2005 WL 3070871): supported military mechanic in Iraq to obtain insurance benefits denied by insurance company under “act of war” exclusion

Q: What challenges did you face, if any as a woman lawyer and judge?  Have the challenges changed over time?

A: When I first started as a judge in the early 90’s in Yonkers City Court, I faced challenges each day as a result of the longtime male-oriented culture of Yonkers lawyers. In these early days, many of the male trial attorneys had never appeared before a woman judge and many of them challenged me in a way that I felt they would have never tried with a male judge.  After I became a Justice of the Supreme Court, I noticed that these moments were more infrequent, but even now there are attorneys who will act in a manner (whether by interrupting, ignoring, or disobeying direction) that I suspect is reserved for the women judges.  Recently, I have noticed a surge in pro se litigants, intent on taking their own cases to trial.  In addition to their inexperience, they frequently seem to have trouble respecting a female authority figure.  Although much has changed for the better over the years, I sincerely believe that we need still more women attorneys trying cases before juries.

Q: How did you balance work life and family over the years?

A: For most of my career I was a single mother raising two children alone, from their infancy to their college years.  Of course I had to hire child care help, but even then I often felt guilty because I was always running from one responsibility to the next.  Looking back on it, being a single mother, being a Judge and having to run political campaigns from time to time, I don’t know how I did it.  And yet, it was the happiest time of my life.  I decided to spend all the time I could at home with the children.  And I don’t regret it.

Q: When not on the bench, what other activities are you engaged in as hobbies and in the community?

A: I perform volunteer work for certain church activities and work with local arts groups, such as the Untermeyer Performing Arts Council in Yonkers.  I also go to the gym (not enough), swim regularly, and am a film buff.  I have traveled widely.

Q: What would you most like to achieve professionally and personally going forward?

A: As of now, my goal is to provide a very fair and informed forum to litigants on a day-to-day basis.  In the future I am very interested in pursuing writing as a second career, since I feel I have many stories to tell after a long career on the bench.

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