Death penalty pro bono and Lincoln for dinner

by NZ Lawyer07 Mar 2016
Chapman Tripp partner Tim Smith tells NZ Lawyer about working pro bono on a Supreme Court death penalty case in the US.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?
In my case there wasn’t any particular moment of decision.  At University I studied law and chemistry, and eventually came to the realisation that I wasn’t suited for laboratory work: a “safe pair of hands” in my case works best as a metaphor. 

How long have you worked at Chapman Tripp and what brought you to this position?
I have been at Chapman Tripp since 2005, aside from one year which I spent in the United States studying.   Prior to 2005 I was working as a judge’s clerk at the Supreme Court, which had then only just been established.  The first case argued before the Court, was argued by Jack Hodder, and I was sufficiently impressed that, when my term as a clerk ended, I applied for a job in his team at Chapman Tripp. 

What’s the strangest case you’ve ever worked on/been involved with?
When I was studying in the United States, I worked pro bono on a Supreme Court death penalty case.  What was particularly strange to my New Zealand sensibilities was that the case was not about whether our client should be sentenced to death, but whether the particular combination of drugs to be administered constituted “cruel and unusual” punishment.   In the absence of a majority to declare the death penalty unconstitutional this strategy made good sense to delay his execution, but my preference would be, as Justice Blackmun said near the end of his judicial career, not to “tinker with the machinery of death”. 

If you could invite three people for dinner, dead or alive and excluding family and friends, who would they be and why?
I have a keen interest in the political history of the United States, so a dinner of former presidents would be my idea of a good time.   The choice of only three is limiting, but I would probably start with Lincoln, LBJ and Obama – each representing epochal moments in the long arc of at least that part of the moral universe comprising the United States.  

You’re based in Wellington – where’s the best place to go for a drink and/or dinner after work?
I have a three year old son, so dinner at my house is the best place to be, picking up Tans Takeaway in Ngaio on the way home.

What’s the best piece of advice (work or personal) you’ve ever been given?
Always to find something interesting about every matter that you work on. 

Do you have any hobbies/interests outside of work?
Aside from United States political history, I am a fan of theatre.  It follows that I am also currently religiously listening to the soundtrack to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. 

Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t a lawyer, I would be…
Working on Hilary’s election campaign or Elizabeth Warren’s staff. 

What do you think will be single biggest issue facing the legal space in New Zealand in 2016?
The challenges of the global economy are likely to continue to be the biggest issue for the profession: how do New Zealand businesses respond to weakening growth in China, Europe and America, and how can lawyers best assist them to do so.   

If you had John Key’s job for one day, what would you do?
One day would probably not be enough time to accomplish much.    

What do you love about your job?
I love almost all aspects of my job – I get to work with great people, clients and colleagues alike, on a range of interesting matters.  However, my favourite part of my job is the privilege of getting to talk to experts on a wide range of different subjects, from electricity market operations to geotechnical engineering, from petroleum engineering to telecommunications network design.

What would you change about your job right now if you could?
Not much: I really like it!