Joe E. Smith, March 2020 Outstanding Volunteer of the Month

Every month, Southern Arizona Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program (VLP) recognizes a legal professional for their voluntarism. The award is a distinct honor. Of the 533 attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their time, twelve are recognized annually for their dedication to access to justice.

Joe E. Smith is the March 2020 Outstanding Volunteer of the Month Award recipient.


Joe was born and lived in several states including Montana and Nebraska before landing in Colorado for his undergraduate studies in English and speech. Next he obtained his Masters degree from the University of Texas El Paso in theater. Joe taught at university and worked in retail after the recession hit. The State of Iowa Department of Human Services hired him so it was off to Iowa where he worked his way up internally to administrative judge. At this time, he decided to get his Juris Doctor from Drake University, Des Moines. For a while, Joe worked on the Employment Appeal Board. Next he worked for the Public Defender’s Office in Des Moines for about four years. He became an Associate District Court Judge for about ten years, on the bench handling misdemeanors, certain felonies, traffic offenses, and juvenile cases. Most of this was juvenile law, which was the most difficult work that he ever loved. The quality he likes most in a lawyer is being well-prepared and the SCOTUS Justice he would most liked to have met is Thurgood Marshall. After this career as a full-time Judge and another four years of semi-retirement as a Senior Judge, Joe and his wife moved to Tucson in 2013 to be fully retired.


Joe has volunteered all his career. Before becoming a Judge, he would take pro bono civil divorces from start to finish. He did it because he felt it was such a privilege that he got to go to law school and he wanted to give back. His work on the bench doing juvenile cases led to his involvement with the Casey Foundation programs and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond doing anti-racist workshops and working on improvements to combat the disproportionate treatment of children of color in the judicial system. Some of these reforms are still in place. In Tucson, Joe set out to volunteer where it was greatly needed, doing family law advice clinics at SALA’s office and at Service Center at the Pima County Superior Court Law Library. He consistently volunteered from 2014 until August 2018, when he moved to Maricopa County to live with his partner. Once there, he immediately started volunteering for the family law clinics at SALA’s Casa Grande office for the people of Pinal County. He also has signed up to volunteer with Community Legal Services. He finds volunteering fulfilling and enjoys meeting the people, most of whom are very grateful for the assistance he gives them. Joe is starting volunteer work with the Federal Club of the Human Rights Commission for the next election.


In his free time, Joe likes quilting and doing home improvement projects. After about fifty-three years of marriage, Joe’s wife sadly passed away. She had four children of her own and they had one child in common so Joe enjoys his time with his five children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Joe and his partner Bob recently got engaged and are planning their wedding, to take place in Colorado Springs with as many family and friends as can make it. They enjoy traveling a lot and own a timeshare in Puerto Vallarta. Joe has visited six continents and finds international travel a huge privilege. Next month is Peru and then hopefully a honeymoon in China in the late summer. Joe enjoys reading biographies and history; his favorite book is War and Peace. He is an ordained minister in the Universalist Church. This could have been a different career for him if he had not gone into law. Joe says it is in his nature to be positive and that he feels fortunate and blessed, which really shines through in his volunteer work.