Sydney Smith was by far the longest-serving Mississippi Supreme Court justice in history. He was born on 9 April 1869 in Lexington, Mississippi, to Civil War veteran Thomas White Smith and Sarah West Smith, who later had at least five more children.
Sydney Smith attended Lexington public schools and at age nineteen became a bookkeeper at Ingleside, a large plantation on the Yazoo River, where he supervised the loading and unloading of barges and managed the plantation store. In his spare time, he read law books. He was among the first students to enroll at Lexington Normal College when it opened in 1889 and studied there until he transferred to the University of Mississippi in 1891. He graduated in June 1893.
Smith first practiced in Yazoo City with Joseph W. George, a law school classmate and the son of US senator James Z. George. Smith moved home to Lexington in February 1894, practicing law with his brother, Charles W. Smith, for two years, and then with Walter P. Tackett for ten years. On 9 April 1896, he married Mattye Leigh Smith. They remained married until her death in July 1947 and had no children.
Smith was elected to represent Holmes County in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1899 and won reelection four years later. A founder of the Mississippi Bar Association, Smith gave the opening address at the bar’s January 1906 organizational meeting, which was held in the House chamber. He served as the group’s secretary-treasurer from 1906 until 1914, when he began a one-year term as the bar’s president.
In September 1906 Gov. James K. Vardaman appointed Smith judge of Mississippi’s 4th Circuit Court, and on 10 May 1909 Gov. Edmond Noel elevated Smith to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The court was composed of only three judges, with the longest-tenured judge holding the post of chief justice. By 8 August 1912 both of the senior judges had resigned and Smith became chief.
From 1870 to 1916 Mississippi Supreme Court justices were appointed by the governor for nine-year terms. Smith authored an amendment to the state constitution, which voters ratified in 1914, that doubled the size of the court, made the positions elective, and provided for eight-year terms. Smith ran for a seat on the court in 1916, defeating former governor Andrew H. Longino in the Democratic Party primary and thus taking the election in one-party Mississippi. Smith easily won reelection in 1924, 1932, and 1940 before choosing not to seek another term.
Smith wrote roughly eighteen hundred opinions during his nearly forty years as a justice. He authored a 1917 opinion that sustained the constitutional amendment that adopted initiative and referendum procedures as well as a 1922 dissent to the invalidation of those procedures. In 1943, in the middle of World War II, he dissented from the conviction of a man for disloyalty, finding that the state statute was written so broadly that it penalized some valid activities.
The chief justice suffered a heart attack in July 1946 and remained in poor health until his death on 24 July 1948.
- Jackson Daily News (9 June 1916, 1 June 1947)
- Michael de L. Landon, The Honor and Dignity of the Profession: A History of the Mississippi Bar Association, 1906–1976 (1979)
- Lexington Progress-Advertiser (1 October 1903, 14 January 1904)
- John Ray Skates, A History of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 1817–1948 (1973)
- Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South, vol. 2 (1925)
- Dunbar Rowland, ed., The Official and Statistical Register of the State of Mississippi, 1920–1924 (1923)
- Sydney Smith Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Leslie H. Southwick, Mississippi College Law Review (1997)