Sitting on the Hon. Peter Smola’s desk deep in the recesses of the Edgartown courthouse was a crisp, solitary copy of Wednesday’s Boston Globe. A banner headline summed up the previous day’s historic proceedings in the U.S. Senate from the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

Judge Smola, who has served as first justice of the Dukes County family and probate court for the past five years, glanced down at the newspaper and paused for a moment.

Behind him was a bookcase full of legal literature, hundreds of case files, sticky notes and two windows that opened out on a parking lot. This was the probate court — a place where specifics could not be avoided, where promises had to be made and kept.

“I don’t know this woman, and why would I?” the judge said, his New Bedford accent instantly recognizable as he pointed at the newsprint. “But many times when I read this, or when I see it on TV, I want to say to some of these folks: spend the day in our courtroom. One day. On any given day, we can have upwards of 50 cases on the list. And they touch all different parts of society, all different fabrics of the problems and circumstances people find themselves in. And we are there, collectively, to try to help them.”

With Friday, Oct. 16 marking his 70th birthday, Judge Smola is required to retire under Massachusetts state law. During his tenure as Dukes County family and probate court judge, he has heard hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that run the gamut from tense custody battles to complex conservatorships, to estates, wills, asset division, restraining orders and domestic violence.

What the probate court lacks in the fierce intellectualism of a federal judicial court appointment, it more than makes up for in the democracy of its litigants and the humanity of their disputes, centered around marriage, love, relationships, money, children — and of course, family. Judge Smola has seen it all in his years as a lawyer and probate judge. It has given his life, and work, purpose.

“I think the probate court, especially now, is, if not more than any of the other courts, the court that is on the front lines,” he said. “It’s complicated at times. And it’s challenging. But I think, from a legal standpoint, there is not another court that I would want to sit on.”

He added: “It’s the essence of the human condition, isn’t it?”

Judge Smola grew up in New Bedford, the son of a lawyer and a child of the south shore. He attended New Bedford public schools and Clark University in Worcester, graduating in 1972. He fell in love with Worcester but moved to Boston, working odd jobs while attending Northeastern law school at night.

“I worked in retail. I cleaned people’s houses. You name it, I did it,” Judge Smola said. “I can’t even remember all the different jobs I had, which gave me the impetus to get another degree, because clearly this wasn’t going to be it.”

After graduating from law school, he returned home, joining a downtown New Bedford firm that already happened to have his name on it. He added another one anyway, making Smola and Smola officially a family business. The younger Mr. Smola handled all the firm’s civil litigation, as well as some probate cases and worker’s compensation.

He eventually went off on his own, and his father — who always wanted to be a judge — died in 1999, 13 years before Mr. Smola was appointed to the bench at age 62.

“I had to grow up pretty fast,” the judge recalled. “My father never had the opportunity to see me get to the bench. But hopefully he’s looking down.”

The Vineyard position opened up when the former first justice, the Hon. Spencer Kagan retired. Judge Smola jumped at the opportunity, remembering the Island fondly from his childhood. He was appointed first justice in 2015, and in the years since has commuted to the Island with his wife Beth about two days every other week to handle the family and probate caseload.

He said spending time on the Vineyard in January showed him that the Island was more than beaches and bicycles. But it also reminded him of where he’d grown up — a diverse community with people struggling through the same domestic disputes as they do across the globe. Being seven miles out at sea complicated matters.

“This is a very special place. It is unique in so many ways. But it is also very much like any other community,” Judge Smola said. “Yet many of the circumstances that drive the determination of resolving the disputes, are driven by the uniqueness of the Island. For instance, the ferries. And the weather. So much revolves around that.”

On the Cape and Islands, former spouses can be six miles away but still live a bus, a ferry and a car apart, a Thursday custody transfer complicated by a wind storm that shutters boats. Money is always a factor. Domestic abuse often is as well.

As a judge, he asks a lot of questions, his eyes soft and voice a deep baritone. He’s humble, the kind of person people say ‘they don’t make them like anymore,’ especially his coworkers in the courthouse. He likes to listen to people in court. But he likes to see them there as well. That has been complicated by the pandemic, with proceedings transferred to Zoom.

“What people say is obviously very important. But the facial expressions, the body language, tell you an enormous amount about what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, what they’re going through,” Judge Smola said. “You really need to be attuned to that. Because that helps to inform you about what’s going on inside a person.”

On the Vineyard, Judge Smola has handled his fair share of bizarre and juicy probate cases. Secret families, unsigned wills, paternity tests, dead writers with mountainous sums of dis-inherited money: it all sounds like the stuff of Agatha Christie, and often solves like it too.

But it’s the human cases with no solution that have stuck with him. A woman getting a divorce wanted to move her children from the Vineyard to Wyoming. The father wanted to stay. After hearing the facts, Judge Smola decided to keep the family on the Island.

“He wasn’t the perfect father. And he wasn’t the perfect man,” the judge said. “But he was a damn good father, at least I thought.”

At a later retreat for probate judges, he recounted the case to the group. The overwhelming majority of judges felt he should have let the mother go.

“At first, I was shattered,” he said. “My mentor, who calls me Smolls, says ‘Smolls, I think you missed this one.’ And I said, well, you’re right. You call them like you see them. And he says, ‘You’re right. You call them like you see them. And I wasn’t there. I didn’t see them.’” Even judges make mistakes. The important part is acknowledging them, Judge Smola said, always remembering his father’s advice to never think of himself as the smartest person in the room. It can be hard under the judicial attire. That’s part of why he doesn’t really wear it anymore. “Some of the lawyers call it black robe disease,” he said. “One of your peers gets quote, un-quote, elevated to this position, and forgets that he was lugging the briefcase from court to court only a few days before. I try to never forget that.”

Judge Smola has a family of his own. Along with his wife, whom he credits with all his success, he has two sons, a lawyer and a social worker, and many grandchildren. He enjoys golf and gardening, and said leaving the Vineyard would be emotional.

But there is still one thing Judge Smola hasn’t decided. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. And anyway, why would he? It isn’t the probate court. There’s no need for specifics — or promises.

“I’m going to do nothing for six months,” he decided. “And then we’ll see.”