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William French Smith

William French Smith served as U.S. attorney general from 1981 to 1985. A longtime friend

and confidant of President RONALD REAGAN, Smith helped formulate the conservative policies that came to be identified with the Reagan administration.

Smith was born on August 26, 1917, in Wilton, New Hampshire. He graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1939 and from the Harvard Law School in 1942. From 1942 to 1946, Smith served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

In 1946 Smith joined the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, one of the largest and most prominent corporate firms in California. He specialized in LABOR LAW, eventually becoming a senior partner and head of the firm's labor department. He enjoyed a reputation as a tough but flexible negotiator. He served as a director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles from 1963 to 1972.

During the 1960s Smith became active in conservative REPUBLICAN PARTY politics. During Arizona Senator BARRY M. GOLDWATER's 1964 presidential campaign, Smith met Ronald Reagan, who was working for Goldwater. Smith was impressed by Reagan's views and his political potential and was a member of a small group of southern California business leaders who urged Reagan to run for governor in 1966. After Reagan was elected governor, Smith became his personal adviser. In 1968 Reagan appointed him to the University of California Board of Regents. Smith later served three terms as chairman of the board.

Smith remained a close adviser to Reagan after he left the governorship and began his quest for the presidency. When Reagan was elected president in 1980, one of his first appointments was the naming of Smith as his attorney general.

During Smith's tenure, the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT shifted its position on a number of issues, including ABORTION, CIVIL RIGHTS, and ANTITRUST LAWS. Adhering to his conservative political views, Smith urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reassess its rulings in earlier abortion cases and to accord greater deference to states that wished to restrict abortions. The Justice Department also placed less emphasis on AFFIRMATIVE ACTION as a means of addressing past RACIAL DISCRIMINATION and on mandatory busing as a means of creating integrated public school systems. Although Smith maintained that he vigorously enforced civil rights laws, his critics argued that the department filed fewer cases in the areas of housing and educational discrimination than it did under previous administrations.

In creating antitrust policy, Smith contended that bigness in business is not necessarily bad and that the government should be concerned only with grossly anticompetitive behavior. He was instrumental in developing a more tolerant policy toward mergers. This shift in the federal government's antitrust position has been credited with contributing to the wave of MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS that occurred during the 1980s.

Smith also pursued a strong anticrime initiative, increasing the resources used to fight the distribution and sale of illegal narcotics by 100 percent. He also successfully lobbied for the passage of the Comprehensive CRIME CONTROL ACT of 1984 (Pub. L. No. 98-473, 98 Stat. 1838), a sweeping measure that included revised federal rules on bail and the establishment of a commission to create new federal sentencing guidelines.

In January 1984 Smith announced his resignation, saying that he wished to work on President Reagan's reelection campaign and to return to private life. He did not leave office, however, until February 1985. This delay was caused by the difficulties that his eventual successor, EDWIN MEESE III, encountered in obtaining Senate confirmation.


Smith died on October 29, 1990, in Los Angeles. His memoirs were published the following year.


Smith, William French. 1991. Law and Justice in the Reagan Administration: The Memoirs of an Attorney General. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.


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