Interviewed by Judge Terrinee Gundy | Photo: The Daily Report
In 1970, Attorney Robert Benham began the practice of law with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society while waiting for his tour of duty as a second lieutenant with the United States Army. Upon completing his active duty service and attaining the rank of captain, he began the active practice of law in Cartersville, Ga. where he became president of the Bartow County Bar Association and later served as chairman of the Coosa Valley Area Planning and Development Commission. He later served as the vice Cchairman of the Georgia Conference of Black lawyers. In 1984, Benham was appointed by Governor Joe Frank Harris to the Georgia Court of Appeals and in 1989, he was appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court where he later became Presiding Justice and then chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. While a Justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, Justice Benham served as chief justice, chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Drug Awareness and Prevention and he was instrumental in starting Georgia’s Drug Courts, a member of the State Bar Task Force on the Involvement of Women and Minorities in the Profession, the Georgia Commission on Children and Youth, the National Association of Court Management, and a member of the National Conference of Chief Justices, a member of the Federal-State Jurisdiction Committee, president of the Society for Alternative Dispute Resolution, chairman of the Judicial Council, chairman of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and a member of the Governors Southern Business Institute.
1. What surprised you most about working with the Judiciary?
While I was not surprised as to the importance of the Judiciary, I, to some extent, was surprised that few people realize the important role the Judiciary plays in the everyday lives of people. The decisions of the Courts can have a lasting impact on the quality of life of all citizens.
2. How do you think your mother would describe you?
My mother and father were successful business people and community leaders who expected their children (three sons) to be productive and to be significant contributing members of society. My mother attended my swearing-in on the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme and when asked as to how she felt about her youngest son becoming the first African American to be elected to a statewide position in Georgia, she replied “I am a little disappointed because I wanted you to be President!”
3. Who is the most interesting person you have met in your life’s journey?
Justice Thurgood Marshall had a profoundly positive impact on my life. As a summer student at Harvard’s Reginald H. Lehman Program I was invited to have a one-on-one dinner with, then, United States Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall during which he impressed upon me the important role lawyers have in improving the quality of life of all people. This role is important because lawyers have an opportunity to look beyond the most distant horizon, anticipate that which is to come, participate in its arrival, and orchestrate its implementation.
4. What do you wish other people knew about how to become a judge?
While my journey to the bench came rather early in my life, after I had been a lawyer for only 13 years I was appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals; and four years later, I was appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court. It took a lot of intensive preparation to achieve my goals, and that preparation involved not only participation in bar activities but it also required that I become heavily involved in religious, business, social and civic activities. These exposures gave me an opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of other people by realizing that I have a vested interest in the success of others. My guiding principles required that I abide by legal, ethical, professional and moral principles which caused me to realize that just because the law allowed me to engage in certain activities, I should also apply ethical, professional and moral yardsticks before engaging in certain activities.
5. What is your personal philosophy on how to achieve success in life?
Whatever task you are called upon to undertake you must be willing to go early, stay late and work harder and smarter than anyone else. If you undertake each of your important tasks in this manner you will increase your chances of succeeding and you will be better prepared to face other challenges in your life. AT