Charles B. Smith, 78, of Malvern, a senior Chester County Court judge and a U.S. magistrate judge in Philadelphia, died Wednesday, Oct. 17, of congestive heart failure.
The judge was on his way to the annual Red Mass at St. Agnes Church, which marks the opening of the judicial year in Chester County, when he collapsed near the Justice Center in West Chester. Sheriff's deputies tried to revive him. He was pronounced dead at Chester County Hospital.
Judge Smith's career in the judiciary spanned 42 years, beginning in 1976, when he was appointed by the court to serve as its first juvenile court master — as a nonjudge who hears cases — and as mental health review officer. Before that, he had served as a legal-aid lawyer in Chester County and as counsel with the firm of Smith, Lachall, Brion, Fetter & Cohen in West Chester.
That initial appointment as a master spurred his judicial ambition, the judge said in a self-written obituary. Early in 1981, he was appointed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh to fill a court vacancy, and that fall he was elected to the court. In addition to his duties hearing all kinds of trials, he supervised Juvenile Court.
"He cared for all the people who appeared in front of him," said President Judge Jacqueline Carroll Cody in a joint statement issued with Chester County Commissioners Michelle H. Kichline, Kathi Cozzone, and Terence Farrell. "Judge Smith faithfully served the residents of Chester County for many years on the bench. He will be greatly missed."
After he won reelection to County Court in 1991, the judge became aware of a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and applied for it. He was elected by the federal bench to serve as a magistrate judge – one who presides over settlement conferences and bail hearings.
In 2002, he was assigned to spend a day a month in Magistrate Court of Valley Forge, dealing with minor cases emanating from Valley Forge National Historical Park. "You discover things you never thought could be a crime are crimes: taking deer antlers from the park, using one of those metal things to look for antlers," he told the Inquirer.
Judge Smith served on the federal court until retiring in 2007 as chief magistrate judge. At that point, he rejoined Chester County Court as a senior judge. He worked part-time there, as well as in neighboring county courts when coverage was needed.
Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Charles M. and Dorothy Smith. He was a graduate of Central High School and Dickinson College.
In 1965, he graduated with honors from Dickinson School of Law. While in law school, he married Cynthia Arndt.
In the early 1970s, he became a community activist and was the first paid legal-aid lawyer in the county, his family said. The program he built became part of the growing nationwide legal-services model.
He was a member of Good Samaritan Church of Paoli, where he was lay reader, vestryman, rector's warden, and vocalist. "Whether singing anthems or reading verses, Charlie's baritone was a great annunciator of words," his family said.
He enjoyed photography, doing crossword puzzles with the TV on, and following the Phillies. He and his wife attended spring training in Florida. Their second home in Sea Isle City, N.J., is decorated with Phillies banners, pennants, and memorabilia.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters, Suzanne Slattery and Leigh Spingler; a son, Benjamin; and four grandchildren. A sister died earlier.
A visitation starting at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, will be followed by a 4 p.m. life celebration at the Church of the Good Samaritan, 212 W. Lancaster Ave., Paoli, Pa. 19301. Burial is private.