Former N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Donald L. Smith (’64) dies following illness

RALEIGH, N.C. — Donald Lee Smith (’64), a retired state appellate court and Wake County Superior Court judge who had a hand in several landmark cases, died Sunday in Raleigh after an illness. He was 75.
On the state Court of Appeals, Smith wrote a number of key decisions, including one that put the burden of proof on state employees contesting their firing rather than on the agency for which they worked. The legislature later changed the law to shift the burden of proof to the employer.

While in private practice with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, from 1989 to 1994, Smith played a significant role in important litigation, including the long-running Bailey lawsuit that led to the refunding of illegally collected taxes from more than 185,000 retirees in North Carolina. In 2002, the law firm established a professorship in constitutional and public law at Wake Forest University in his name.

Burley Mitchell Jr., a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who now works at Womble Carlyle, spent much of his professional and personal life in close contact with Smith. Mitchell recalled that Smith was a rarity at the time – a Republican Superior Court judge in North Carolina – but that he quickly earned a reputation as fair and nonpartisan.

“He was just a judge’s judge,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “He lived the law. It was his whole life. Right up to the day he died, he was interested in legal issues. The law will miss him.”

Smith grew up in Lumberton, graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law and worked as attorney for Raleigh and Cary at different times. Gov. Jim Martin appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 1987, and he later served as an emergency recall judge for the appellate and superior courts.

He remained a bachelor and is survived by a sister, Myra Smith Goodwin of Clinton and Asheville, and a brother, Gerald “Jerry” Lumis Smith of Fayetteville, along with two nephews and a niece.

Visitation will be in Lumberton at Floyd Mortuary and Crematory from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, followed by a memorial service at 3 p.m. in the chapel. Burial will be private.

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