During the Watergate scandal, with six simple words — “No man is above the law” — he helped hasten a president out of office.
He was a plainspoken country lawyer named Chesterfield Smith, and he died Wednesday night in Coral Gables. He was 85.
“He was the most influential lawyer, I think, to ever come out of Florida,” said Bill McBride, a former Democratic candidate for governor who worked with Smith at the firm of Holland & Knight. “He said what he thought, and he said it as bravely and boldly as any man I ever knew.”
Smith’s death from cardiopulmonary complications brought down the gavel on a career in which he fraternized with presidents, governors, judges and Supreme Court justices, as well as with athletes and entertainers. He won them all over with a disarming personal manner and a forthright speaking style.
Smith’s most famous words were uttered in October 1973, shortly after he assumed his one-year tenure as president of the American Bar Association, when President Nixon abolished the special prosecutor’s office in what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
While the country groped through the legal fog surrounding Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up, Smith offered knife-edge legal clarity: “No man is above the law.” He called for an investigation.
Smith’s words became a catalyst for Nixon’s ultimate resignation.
Newscaster Tom Brokaw devoted a full chapter of his book The Greatest Generation to Smith, whom he called “America’s lawyer.”
Smith, who grew up in the small southwest Florida town of Arcadia, fought in Europe in World War II, earning the rank of major, before graduating with honors from the University of Florida Law School in 1948.