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Joseph E. Smith, a normally relaxed person, was positively ebullient as he welcomed the visitor to his office.
The room reflects his persona with Florida State University memorabilia always in view. The judge is known for his devotion to the garnet and gold, so much so a daughter is named Garnet.
And why not be faithful to the school that launched the love story of his life? Smith met his wife Bobbie when the two attended FSU. They have two children, Garnet and a son, Scott, a Methodist minister, and six grandchildren.
Those grandchildren can soon count on spending more time with Smith as he is retiring after 16 years as Levy County Judge in the state’s 8th Judicial Circuit.
The resignation is effective Dec. 31, but Levy County residents can gather from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the Bronson Elementary School cafeteria to honor his service.
“Why am I retiring? Because it’s time,” he proclaims when asked. He said it is “the optimum time” for him to enter the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP). The program allows him to continue working, say as a senior judge, drawing a salary and defer payment of his retirement. The retirement pay he would normally draw accumulates and earns 6.5 percent interest. At a certain point in time Smith will quit working for the state, draw the deferred retirement money, plus the interest and receive only a retirement check.
Smith has applied to be a senior judge in the 8th Judicial Circuit which serves Levy County, which would allow him to work. But it would also give him time for other projects.
“I’m 67. I’ll be 68 in February and I’m in decent health, and the truth of the matter is it was something beneficial to me.”
So what will he do?
“Good question. I would like to get involved in some community improvement projects, to work with the Chamber (of Commerce) in my hometown of Williston,” he said.
The mission is the same as it has been in his life.
“I have always wanted to give back to the Levy ,” he said. “It gave me an education.”
And it gave him a practice.
He will also spend more time attending to his duties as lay pastor at Evinston United Methodist Church.
And those six grandchildren?
“I plan on seeing a lot of soccer and volleyball games.”
“And maybe some traveling.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“My wife may have a few things for me to do.”
His bottom line, he says, is to be extremely active and very involved in the life of his lifetime home, Williston.
That’s not unusual for a fellow who is remembered by one person as being a cheerleader while attending Williston High School.
“I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it,” Smith said of his time on the bench. “This has been wonderful for me.”
It has also been a constant learning experience.
“I learned quickly that you could not lump everybody together,” he said. “Everybody says let’s punish the criminals. They don’t have much empathy. But that person has a mother, has a father and a family.
“You cannot look at them as a number. A person has needs and wants . . . and economics are such a part of wrong decisions.”
Smith says the majority of his caseload beyond the traffic citations has economics as a driving force.
“It drives the drug trade. It drives so much,” he said. There were drugs in Levy County when he assumed the bench in 1993, but he said it has escalated even more and become more devastating on his beloved Levy County.
“It is devastating to see how it drags on the system, how it can change the face of the individual and society and how it has changed the criminal system.” The drug trade ties up the court’s limited resources in tight budget times.
Other changes Smith has seen from his bench include the people coming into this court. Times were when someone came into his courtroom he knew them or of them.
“We have more people,” he said. Among the newcomers to the county are migrants.
“When I first came we could go several weeks without needed a translator. Now we have to have one in every court because of the Latino population.”
Another change is the court building itself. Smith sits on a courthouse space study committee that is trying to decide what to do with the 21 acres the county purchased for a new courthouse close to the Sheriff’s Office in Bronson.