Atlanta, February 13, 2020 – Justice Robert Benham sat for the last time today on the bench of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Today was the last day a pillar of Georgia history heard arguments in cases. After nearly 36 years as a Judge on the Court of Appeals and as a Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Benham is retiring effective March 1, 2020. Governor Brian Kemp will appoint his replacement.
“I want you to know this man is a fighter,” Chief Justice Harold Melton said, describing Justice Benham as “my friend and colleague” who was the first African-American in history appointed to the state’s highest court. The Chief Justice acknowledged that many don’t recognize that Justice Benham has been a fighter for decades because he is so kind, thoughtful, and soft-spoken, but the courts of Georgia are different and better “because he has always been fighting.”
With Justice Benham’s wife, Nell, in the audience, as well as a number of Court of Appeals judges and court staff, Justice Benham recounted when he first came to the state Capitol nearly 50 years ago. “I came as an intern to the governor,” he said. The governor at the time was Lester Maddox, who served from 1967-to-1971 and was a known segregationist. Governor Maddox later said to him, “Bob, I get criticized a lot for what I do. But I don’t get criticized for bringing you into state government.”
Justice Benham said that as a young man from Cartersville, he never imagined he would one day be an intern for a governor, then be appointed as a judge to the state’s intermediate appellate court, and eventually be appointed in 1989 by then-Governor Joe Frank Harris as a justice to the state’s highest court. “This is the best job I ever had,” Justice Benham said. He reminded the newly sworn-in attorneys standing before him that as judges and lawyers, “We are healers. I hope you realize your role as healers.”