ELKTON — Michael D. Smigiel Sr. passionately and effectively advocated for hundreds of clients as an Elkton-based lawyer for 33 consecutive years and for thousands of state residents during the 12 years that he served as a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly.
But his deepest loyalty was rooted in something much more profound, much more sacred to him than even the clients and citizens he represented.
“I remember him carrying around the Constitution in his pocket. He had a strong sense of what it meant,” recalled private-practice attorney Thomas Kemp, who, for the past 40 years, has been operating out of a Main Street office that is a couple of blocks east of where Smigiel hung his shingle as a solo practitioner.
Kemp is one of several people who shared their memories of Smigiel after learning of his death. Surrounded by his loved ones, Smigiel died on Sunday afternoon in the intensive care unit at an area hospital after battling several medical issues, according to a notice that his family posted on social medical. Smigiel was 64.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, Smigiel’s surviving family members had not publicized funeral plans, except to say that services would be private. The family asked for “understanding and privacy during this time of grief” in its social media post.
After his high school graduation, Smigiel served in the US Marine Corps from 1975 through 1979. Smigiel was noticeably patriotic, according to those who knew him, so it stood to reason that he would serve his country in the military. As for the branch in which he served, Smigiel was quite proud.
“I remember ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ playing and Mike standing at attention,” Kemp said, noting that, although he did not retain memory of the public venue in which it happened and other details about it, he vividly recalls this: “ Afterward, he told me, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’”
Smigel went on to earn an AA Degree in history and psychology at Elgin (Ill.) Community College in 1982, after his honorable discharge from the Marines. And from there, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science at Northern Illinois University in 1985.
Then Smigiel attended the Northern Illinois University School of Law, where he presided as class president and where he graduated with a Juris Doctorate Degree in 1989. Later that year, Smigiel, who moved to Chesapeake City with his family, was admitted to the Maryland State Bar and started his private practice at a Main Street office. Civil work made up the bulk of Smigiel’s caseload.
“He was a fierce litigator. He would vigorously represent his clients, whether he was the moving party or the defending party. He was always ready for a (legal) fight. He never tiptoed around anything. He always made his position known, and you always knew where he stood,” said Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes, who has been practicing law for nearly 40 years, which includes a long stint as a prosecutor before taking the bench in 2011.
Smigiel was known for his direct — even blunt, at times — way of making legal arguments and presenting his case in the courtroom. And he always was mindful of the US Constitution when doing so. In other words, Smigiel was a real stickler for the principles set forth in that cornerstone document and a staunch defender of his client’s rights afforded by it.
“A lot of people didn’t agree with him and didn’t like his style, because he could rub people the wrong way sometimes, but his clients loved him,” Baynes remarked.
Findlay McCool, who has been practicing law in Cecil County for 40 years, remembered how well Smigiel could keep his professional and personal worlds separate from each other. Because of his consolidation approach to practicing law, Smigiel didn’t hold grudges.
“Mike and I were on different sides of the coin many times. But no matter how heated things got inside that courtroom, we were always able to put our differences aside. As any good lawyer would do, we were able to leave it in the courtroom and go into the hallway and talk about being parents,” McCool said.
Smigiel’s children and McCool’s children took classes at the same karate studio, where the two lawyers had cordial conversations with each other while their youngsters learned self-defense techniques. (Smigiel’s children and McCool’s children also went through elementary, middle and high school together in Chesapeake City.)
“Mike was a family man,” McCool said, explaining that Smigiel was involved in his children’s activities and that he frequently talked about his youngsters and his wife.
As for his skill and commitment as a lawyer and as a public servant, Smigiel was solid.
“Mike Smigiel, without a doubt, left his mark. He was admired by many and feared by several,” McCool said. “He was very civic-minded and he was a good advocate for his clients. He stirred up more dust than anyone could.”
In 2002, some 13 years into his law career, Smigiel won his first of three consecutive four-year terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. Smigiel, who was a Republican, represented District 36. Appropriately, given his law background, Smigiel served on the Judiciary Committee and was a member of the criminal justice subcommittee. He also served on the Health and Government Operations Committee and, from 2003 to 2006, he served as the deputy minority whip.
Sen. Steven S. Hershey Jr. (R-District 36) posted this message on social message after learning of Smigiel’s death: “Mike was a committed and uncompromising supporter of our Constitution. It was captivating to watch him in action on the floor of the Maryland House of Delegates. Mike passionately believed one was never a former Marine, but always a Marine. Our county, our state and our communities shall always remain thankful and appreciative of Mike’s dedicated service.”
Many of the issues near and dear to Smigiel as an attorney, including protecting the 2nd Amendment rights of citizens, were likewise to him as a delegate while creating legislation during his 12-year stretch in Annapolis.
While he was adept at keeping his private and professional lives separate as a lawyer, Smigiel did not walk on eggshells as an attorney just because he also was a delegate. Smigiel filed lawsuits against Cecil County Government and other agencies during his three-decade career as a lawyer.
“Mike was someone who was always willing to stand up for ‘The Little Guy,’ whoever he thought might be taken advantage of. He was not afraid of controversy. He would wade right in — even if it was against his political interests. He always put his clients ahead of his long-term political interests. When he took on a cause, Mike was in 100%. He was full-speed ahead, once he was involved,” outlined Retired Cecil County Circuit Court Judge V. Michael Whelan, who has been practicing law for more than 40 years.
Kemp agreed with Whelan’s assessment, commenting, “If Mike believed in something, it didn’t matter to him if there were potential adverse consequences.”
Whelan, who, along with his then-law partner, Dexter M. Thompson Jr., rented a Main Street office to Smigiel early in his career, mainly remembers Smigiel as a friendly man.
“He was very sociable. We talked about everything,” Whelan said. “He didn’t seem to have a sour side — unless you were his adversary.”
In a handwritten note that Smigiel left for his loved ones, he addressed his pending passing and made his wishes known, according to the family’s social media post.
“My family, my friends, please smile, my love. Remember me not in tears but in kind words, laughs and smiles. Exchange stories and break bread, toast me goodbye,” Smigiel wrote, before ending his note with, “Look up and you will see me dancing in the stars. Semper Fi.”
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