For Justice Robert Benham, being a judge isn’t about punishing people. It’s about salvaging people.
“We need to give people a chance the do the right thing at the right time for the right reason,” he said.
Benham, the longest serving and first African American member of the Supreme Court of Georgia, talked about his journey in the justice system at the 2020 Holmes-Hunter Lecture, held Feb. 3.
Named in honor of Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes, the first African American students to attend the University of Georgia, the lecture is sponsored by the Office of the President and focuses on race relations, civil rights and education. It has been held annually since 1985 and is designated as a Signature Lecture.
Hunter-Gault made a surprise appearance to introduce Benham.
“The choices to speak at this podium at the Holmes-Hunter Lecture have been so amazing and have filled our hearts and our heads with wisdom,” she said. “I’m hoping that their messages will continue to resonate throughout the university and everywhere their words have landed.”
Benham shared childhood experiences that left an impression and eventually led to his career. His first experience with integration was when he went to a segregated library, picked the book he wanted off the shelf, checked it out and then walked out of the library. Nearly 30 years later, that librarian hold him she let him go because it was the right thing to do. That visit to the library inspired other acts of integration, such as eating at a segregated restaurant.
“Since I was able to walk out of the library with a book, I started walking in a lot of other places,” he said. “I decided I could do my own demonstrations and Freedom Rides.”
According to Benham, it’s imperative that people challenge things they know are wrong. And his position as a judge allows him to have a direct hand in that.
“Lawyers put on the armor of the law to go out and slay the dragon of injustice,” he said. “As long as we’re able, we’ll keep on doing it, because that’s what the law is designed to do.”
Some of the cases Benham took on as a litigator include discrimination at carpet mills in northwest Georgia, proper medical care for AIDS patients and equal access to a skating rink for minorities.
“Believe it or not, that’s what I have fun doing—representing the downtrodden, the put-upon and the oppressed and fleshing out the Constitution and the Bill of Rights so that it provides protection to all of our citizens,” he said.
After earning his Bachelor of Science from Tuskegee University in 1967, Benham became the second African American to graduate from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1970. In 1984, he was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Gov. Joe Frank Harris where he served for five years before being appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1989. That same year, he earned his Master of Laws from the University of Virginia. Benham will be retiring from the bench next month.
In 2018, the UGA School of Law established the Benham Scholars Program to foster diversity in the legal profession, named in honor of Justice Benham.