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Former Chief Justice follows in the Footsteps of UGA trailblazers

By Rachael Andrews/UGA Today

Retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Benham will receive the 2024 Footsteps Award and be recognized at the annual 1961 Club celebration. 

Each year, alumni who demonstrate a significant positive impact in their community are honored with the award, named to recognize three UGA trailblazers that helped to integrate the university: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Hamilton Holmes and Mary Frances Early. Winners are chosen by a committee of University of Georgia faculty, staff and students.

“Justice Benham’s career is inspirational for students, fellow alumni and communities all over Georgia,” said Lee Zell, president of the UGA Alumni Association. “He has given so much to his community, his state and his university. It’s an honor to be able to recognize his service in this way.”

Justice Benham, a 1970 graduate of UGA’s School of Law, is no stranger to breaking barriers. He was the first African American member of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and he was the longest-serving justice when he retired in 2020 after more than 30 years. Among his many other achievements, Justice Benham was also the first African American to establish a law practice in Cartersville; the first Black president of the Bartow County Bar Association; and the first African American to win a statewide election since Reconstruction.

In addition to his illustrious public service career, Benham also continues to give back to the UGA community. He was the keynote speaker at the 2020 Holmes-Hunter Signature Lecture, which is sponsored by the UGA Office of the President and is designated as a Signature Lecture. It has been held annually since 1985.

The Justice Robert Benham Scholars Program Fund was created to support UGA School of Law students in the Benham Scholars Program who have overcome significant adversity and demonstrated an intent to return to and serve rural or legally underserved communities. The program provides support for law students in four key areas: recruitment, preparation for law school, academic support and career planning.

Justice Benham has received numerous accolades over the years, including some from other esteemed Georgia institutions. The Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, the organization responsible for ensuring that Georgia lawyers are enlisted in the service of the client and the public good, established the Justice Robert Benham Awards for Community Service, which now enter their 24th year of honoring outstanding community and public service by judges throughout the state of Georgia.

“Justice Benham embodies the values that the University of Georgia hopes to instill in our alumni: courage, compassion and a dedication to public service,” Jill Walton, vice president for development and alumni relations at UGA said. “We are excited to be able to celebrate his involvement with UGA and his community with this award.”

This year marks the third year of the UGA Footsteps Award. Previous honorees include Richard Dunn and Xernona Thomas in 2023, and Eugenia Harvey as the inaugural honoree in 2022.

Justice Benham will be honored during the annual 1961 Club Celebration on June 14 in Atlanta. The 1961 Club is a giving society named for the year of desegregation at UGA. Members support the Black Alumni Scholarship Fund, which seeks to remove barriers to education for students.

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