"When audiences know who those characters are, they want to see how those characters are going to react in a particular situation... and we want to go along with the ride in terms of what they do. In this case, they're lawyers," Smits tells TVGuide.com.
Smits plays conservative Supreme Court Justice Cyrus Garza, a gambler and playboy who nonetheless strictly interprets the law. A crisis of conscience, however, causes him to resign to start his own private practice to fight constitutional injustices. The cases may be smaller, but his mouth certainly isn't.
"He operates from a place where he uses his full voice. He speaks his mind; he doesn't couch things," Smits says. Unlike the more internalized Bobby Simone he portrayed on NYPD Blue, Smits says Garza "is totally out in the open about his gambling and his demons."
While the cases involve individuals, they reflect bigger issues.
"We're tackling things like Miranda [rights], but with a very specific, personalized storyline. It's not soapbox-y in that way. There's an immigration episode from a very specific point of view, but how it affects states' rights in that particular episode," he says.
One of the dynamics of the show will be the rapport between Garza's team members, some of whom have different political viewpoints than he does. Carly Pope plays Lucinda Pearl, the team's private investigator, who, according to Smits, "is unconventional in terms of her methods of getting stuff done, never breaks the law, but certainly bends it as much as she can." Jesse Bradford's character, Eddie Franks, is the "ultra conservative" attorney, while Ellen Woglom plays law-clerk Mareta Stockman, who is much more liberal. David Ramsey rounds out the team as Garza's best friend from childhood, Al Druzinsky, a defense attorney with liberal beliefs.
In addition to taking on other people's issues, Garza will also deal with his own — especially the death of his father.
"In the pilot, he passes away and there's a guilt factor there. They were both on a politically different ends of the spectrum, and he starts to question where he's coming from," Smits says.
The 55-year-old, who won an Emmy for his work as attorney Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law, also says his own political background is much different from that of Garza's.
"It's fun to get into the head and mindset of somebody who's not as liberal-minded as I am," Smits says, adding that he doesn't have trouble playing someone with a different frame of mind.
"A year and a half ago, I was working on Dexter, and there's no way I agree with that character's methodology of how he deals with life on a daily basis. But you find a way; that's what we do. And make it fun."
Outlaw premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC. It moves to its regular Friday timeslot on Sept. 17.