Associate judge candidate is Army JAG and combat veteran

By Ann Maher | Aug 25, 2015

One of the 11 candidates being considered for five vacancies at the Third Judicial Circuit is uniquely qualified to serve as judge.

But some of the qualities that make Sarah D. Smith, 39, stand out among the field - she's a decorated combat veteran who continues to serve as an Army reserve officer - are ones she does not want trumpeted in a way that makes her come across as boastful.

"I'm very proud of my record, don't get me wrong," Smith said. She explained that as she seeks a spot on the Madison County bench, she doesn't believe her military record makes her superior to any of the other job seekers.

Smith, serving in the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) of the Illinois National Guard, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal - a prestigious award given for acts of heroism in a combat zone - during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2009. While deployed in "some of the most hostile and dangerous areas," Smith traveled to 15 forward operating bases and five remote combat outposts to provide operational law briefings on rules of engagement (ROE) and escalation of force (EOF) to the command, staff and soldiers at each location.

In order to understand what scenarios fellow soldiers routinely faced in terms of ROE and EOF, Smith also participated in numerous day and night dismounted patrols throughout the city of Kabul and outlying rural areas, according to Smith's Bronze Star Medal narrative.

She said the experience of being in the field helped her in her role as JAG to understand difficult decisions soldiers have to make in combat.

Smith, who drills monthly at a post in Springfield as deputy staff judge advocate, was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel. However, she didn't start out on the officer track.

When she was a senior at Edwardsville High School, Smith visited an Army recruiter by herself and enlisted in 1995. But since she was only 17, she needed a parent's endorsement.

"My mother, she remembers it so vividly," Smith said. "I brought the recruiter home with me" to get the waiver signed.

In the summer after high school graduation, Smith went to basic training, followed by additional reserve training after her first year of college at Millikin University in Decatur.

During the college years, Smith drilled in Wood River, becoming a light vehicle mechanic and power generator mechanic.

She received her undergraduate degree in political science in 1998. She went on to Regent University and Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va. where she earned both a master's degree in public policy and a juris doctorate in 2002.

Smith had been an attorney for a year when she was approached by someone who encouraged her to become an officer. While the improved compensation package ultimately guided her decision to switch tracks, she said she appreciated her experiences as prior enlisted.

"It has given me better perspective," she said.

"I come from knowing earlier on what it's like to be at the lowest rank. There are certain officers that grow into better leaders because of prior enlisted experience. A lot of good officers can relate - that makes you want to be a better officer."

Her full time job for the past two years has been as assistant Madison County state's attorney. She works in the felony division on cases involving asset forfeiture, money laundering, post conviction petition and veteran's court.

Prior to working in the State's Attorney's office, she worked in a full time position at the Illinois National Guard in Springfield as a federal legal technician.

She started her legal career as an associate at Ezra and Associates in Collinsville pursuing personal injury litigation.

It was three days before her first trial for which she had done most of the preparation, when she got a call that led to the following Monday's trial getting continued. That first mobilization happened 10 years ago as Smith's unit was called to New Orleans in support of the Guard's Hurricane Katrina mission.

"It was a big disappointment," she said of not getting that case to trial as scheduled.

She credited her employer Jeff Ezra as being a "tremendous guy" who supported her military commitments, that included two deployments and one mobilization. 

"Obviously, employers have to honor those commitments, but there are ways employers can get around that," she said.

"Jeff Ezra, my mentor. He was very understanding, and when I was deployed overseas, he was very considerate."

Smith is one who loved to debate in high school and college and has always had a love of reading. She said there was never any doubt what profession she would pursue. it wasn't a particular individual who paved the way for her, but it "probably" was a lawyer TV show that sparked her interest.

"Being a lawyer was the only thing I wanted to do," she said. "I always knew it's what I wanted to do."

And, now with experience as an advocate for military justice and personal injury victims, as well as a prosecutor for the state of Illinois, Smith said she is prepared for a next step as a trial court judge.

"Definitely, (becoming a judge) you strive for it in a legal career," she said. "I knew early on that I wanted to be a judge."

Smith said she believes her background has provided her with well-rounded experiences. She said she would welcome any docket, knowing "you're going to impact lives."

"It's such a big responsibility," she said. "I would be as unbiased as possible."

Smith is married and resides in Edwardsville with her husband and boys age 4 and 2, with another on the way.

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Organizations in this Story

Edwardsville Community Unit School District 7 Ezra & Associates, LLC Madison County State's Attorney Millikin University Regent University School of Law

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