Today marked the last day on the job for Justice Robert Benham. That “job” being no less than serving on the state’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Georgia. A true pioneer, he was the second African-American graduate of UGA law school and the first to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court. He is retiring after 36 years on the appellate Courts (5 on Georgia Court of Appeals and 31 on Supreme Court). Appointed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris in December 1989, he was the first African-American ever appointed to the Supreme Court in its more than 140 years. He served in the United States Army Reserve attaining the rank of captain, and served as a trial attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid among many other professional accomplishments. A lifelong resident of Georgia, Justice Benham was born to Jesse Knox Benham and Clarence Benham in Cartersville, Georgia. He obtained a B.S. in Political Science from Tuskegee University in 1967 and also attended Harvard University. In 1970 he obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia, Lumpkin School of Law. He obtained Master of Laws degree from the University of Virginia in 1989.
As a tribute to Justice Benham, I am sharing my remarks from the 2013 Justice Robert Benham Community Service Awards. Prompted by concerns about the decreasing number of lawyers in leadership positions in public and community service, then Chief Justice Robert Benham in 1996 created a Community Service Task Force under the auspices of the Commission on Professionalism. Composed of leaders of the bench and bar in Georgia, the Task Force determined to encourage, support, and recognize within the profession the tradition that all lawyers perform community service and measure their success in ways other than just financial gain. To accomplish its purpose, the Task Force created the Justice Robert Benham Annual Awards for Community Service in partnership with the State Bar to honor lawyers and judges from the ten judicial districts of Georgia who have made outstanding contributions in the area of community service. Since 1998, the Commission has coordinated the selection and presentation of these Awards.
Justice Benham, to say you will be missed on the bench is an understatement. I will always think of you with great love and admiration. You are the ultimate role model for any lawyer. The hallmarks of your career and life are integrity, kindness, compassion for others and wisdom. You deserve only the best in your retirement. Godspeed!
Remarks of President Robin Frazer Clark at the 2013 Justice Robert Benham Community Service Awards
February 26, 2013 State Bar of Georgia
It is my distinct and honor and privilege to welcome you to the 14th Annual Justice Robert Benham Awards for Community Service. This year’s worthy recipients, and countless other Georgia lawyers who volunteer their time and expertise in their communities, bring great honor to our profession. It is our privilege to honor them tonight.
These awards recognize the commitment of Georgia lawyers to volunteerism, encourage all lawyers to become involved in community service, improve the quality of life of those they help and even enrichen the lawyers’ own lives through the satisfaction they derive from helping others. Their work also raises the public image of lawyers.
Tonight is one of the highlights of my year as President of the State Bar, as I am sandwiched between Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who, as she well knows, is one of my heros and Justice Robert Benham, who is another hero and legendary role model. Since these awards are given in the name of our dear Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, it is only fitting that we take a moment to reflect on the example of service Justice Benham is for us through his extraordinary life. Justice Benham distinguished himself as the first African American to win statewide election in Georgia since Reconstruction. In 1989, Justice Benham was further distinguished as the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of Georgia, following his appointment by Governor Harris.
He also made history both as the first African-American to establish a law practice in his hometown of Cartersville. In what can only be described as something straight out of a movie, when Justice Benham would walk down the street in Cartersville to go to the Bartow Co. Courthouse, many fellow African Americans would come out of their homes and out of their places of work to follow him down the street. The shouts of “Mr. Benham’s going to court, Mr. Benham’s going to court” could be heard as they followed their hero, then “Attorney Benham”, to the courthouse, because they knew Attorney Benham was going there to stand up for the little guy, the underdog.
Justice Benham’s first lesson of service to others probably came at the hands of his mother, who insisted that he shine shoes at the local barber shop.
His mother had this view that if you ever plan to lead people that you must be
willing to serve them and there’s no more humbling experience than being down on your knees shining somebody’s shoes. And she says, “If you do that you won’t be full of yourself, you won’t be hording everything.” It reminds me of the lyrics in that U2 song that say “If you want to kiss the sky you better learn how to kneel.”
So Justice Benham as a little boy, with his brothers, shined shoes at Bob Cagle’s barber shop. As I have heard Justice Benham say, “the American Dream is that a black child from Cartersville who shined shoes in a barber shop can grow up and shine in the Halls of Justice.”
In the Kennesaw State University Department of History and Philosophy Summer Hill Oral History Project, Justice Benham described his family’s origins for insistence on service for others. “Family meals were not optional, they were required. A blessing was said at every meal and the children, my two brothers and I were required to say a Bible verse. We could not say the same Bible verse anybody at the table said and we could not use the same Bible verse during that week, and that was required. There was no television on, and we were the only family in the neighborhood who had a television, but you did not watch TV while you were at the family meal and you engaged in discussion. Daddy would always ask, “Well, what are you going to do today?” And then we knew what was coming next, “What are you going to do for somebody else?” That was at every
Quite a lesson that Justice Benham never forgot. Years later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say that life’s most persistent question is “What are you doing for others.” Life’s most persistent question has been the hallmark of Justice Benham’s life. And tonight we honor these lawyers for their commitment to service to others. One of the hallmarks of the profession is law is a recognition that along with the privilege to practice law comes a duty to subordinate financial reward to social responsibility. Tonight’s award recipients have demonstrated their understanding of this and with their public service to their communities have embodied Justice Benham’s example of service. Through this work they are promoting the cause of justice, upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of all citizens.
I am reminded of the movie “Friday Night Lights” about a Texas high school football team, and every time they broke huddle they yelled in unison “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”
Congratulations to our award recipients tonight on behalf of the State Bar of Georgia. May God bless you and your families and may God Bless the Great State of Georgia.
Robin Frazer Clark is a trial lawyer who pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others. Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia, a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, a Past President of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and has practiced law in Georgia for 30 years. She is a member of the International Society of Barristers and of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.
Robin Frazer Clark ~ Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.