The Honorable John R. Smiley – Retired!

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Smiley elegantly retired a couple weeks ago on his 75th birthday. He was a great judge, and we will miss him.

Famously a graduate of Princeton University (his chambers were adorned with Princeton tigers and his orange and black Repp tie was in high rotation), Judge Smiley began his legal career at the Ventura firm, Lucking, Bertelsen, Bysshe, Kuttler & Smiley. There, he specialized in family and business law for thirteen years. As he later joked, he found himself to be a better lawyer than a businessperson. So, he sought appointment to the bench and succeeded in 1986.

California then separated “municipal” courts, where Judge Smiley initially served, from the Superior Court. In 1998 California voters passed a constitutional amendment that provided for voluntary unification of the superior and municipal courts in each county into a single, countywide trial court system. He was then elevated to the Superior Court. As soon as 2004, he was elected Presiding Judge of the Ventura County Superior court, managing the court, assigning cases to other judges and specialized courts, overseeing the court calendar, and deciding cases.

I first met him in about 1999, when I was building a family law specialty on my ten years of experience as a business litigator. I found him not “smiley,” but intimidating. He projected a no-nonsense control of his courtroom. A law professor, too, he knew his stuff through and through — when I might not have!

But that changed. The more cases we had together, the more I appreciated his intelligence, even demeanor, and dry wit. He came to trust me as a straight-up advocate, offering minimal “BS” while still arguing my client’s positions 100%. I learned to modulate in that realm, maintaining credibility while still pushing envelopes where warranted.

Judge Smiley tolerated that. I listened and learned the steps to that dance. I did not always agree with him, but he made no secret that he was doing his best as an imperfect human in a tough job. He did not always agree with me, but he respected that I always did my best, representing clients in complex, expensive, and emotional situations.

An early case “together” involved a client who settled by “buying” the beloved family dog, Pheobe, through assumption of $11,000 of community credit card debt. The next day, she reconsidered, harshly asking me how I could ever have “let” her do that – spending so much for a dog?! This led me to a motion to set-aside the settlement, where Judge Smiley heard me emphasize in open court that it concerned a “shit – zu named Phoebe.” Not quite hiding his amusement, he called counsel into chambers where he helped us work it out absent further drama and fees.

In one of my early multi-day family law trials, opposing counsel’s examination over the family’s assets become interminable. Barely hiding his frustration, Judge Smiley dryly asked counsel if he might stipulate to avoiding any item not worth … “say, at least $75.” Blessedly, counsel got the drift and likely cut the trial time by half! One way or another, Judge Smiley got results.

An annual treat for the Ventura County Bar Association’s Family Law Bar was his “State of the Family Law Courts” address. There, he put his wit on full display, amusing all while still reporting the not-always-good news (Governor Brown and his perennial cuts to the courts’ budget …!) When he later took over the annual address, Judge Liebmann openly complained about what a hard act he had to follow. He was right.

A highlight for both of us was when I was chosen to present Judge Smiley with the Southern California Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ annual “Judicial Officer of the Year” award in 2007. I was then a newly minted Fellow of the AAML, nervous as could be but also proud!

The stories abound. Ultimately, Judge Smiley was every family law lawyer’s dream – a judge who listened, considered, and cared about his decisions and the families they affected. He did the same for the attorneys, witnesses, and other advocates regularly giving their all in this uniquely complex and challenging area of practice. Herring Law Group fondly wishes Jack a well-deserved, happy, and healthy retirement on his beloved golf courses — and anywhere else he might find himself!