Justice Robert Benham, seen here listening to oral arguments in 2017, said Thursday he will retire from the court on March 1, 2020. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Justice Benham to retire in March, upending GA Supreme Court race

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court, announced Thursday he will step down from the bench on March 1.

Benham, 73, had been expected to retire when his current six-year term ends on Dec. 31, 2020. But by leaving more than nine months earlier, Benham gives Gov. Brian Kemp the chance to appoint his successor. It also upends an ongoing race with four contenders hoping to succeed Benham.

The nonpartisan race had been scheduled to be held in May, but that won’t happen now. Under state law, the person Kemp appoints to succeed Benham will not have to run for election until 2022.

Court of Appeals Judge Sara Doyle was the first to announce she was running for what was believed to be Benham’s upcoming open seat. Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow then joined the race, followed by former state lawmaker Beth Beskin and Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson, who presides over Newton and Walton counties.

On Thursday, Doyle said she will be among those applying to the state Judicial Nominating Commission to get Benham’s seat in March. She also said that, if necessary, she will qualify for her Court of Appeals seat in March and run as an incumbent in hopes of retaining her judgeship. She’d face a crowded field because eight candidates have already announced plans to run for what they’d thought would be Doyle’s open seat.

In a statement, Benham said he has enjoyed his 34 years as an appellate court judge and called his decision to step down in March a difficult one.

“Once I was at peace with this decision, I wanted to let people know as soon as possible, especially those who were hoping to run in an open election,” he said. “Furthermore, it is my hope that the timing of my retirement will cause minimal disruption to the court.”

Benham’s storied legal career began when he became the second African American to graduate from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1970. After practicing as a lawyer in Cartersville, Benham was put on the state Court of Appeals in 1984 and months later won a contested race for the seat, becoming the first African American to win a statewide election in Georgia.

In 1989, Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed Benham to the Supreme Court bench. He served as its chief justice from 1995-2001.

In a statement, Kemp thanked Benham for his “courage, tenacity and friendship” and wished him the best in his retirement.

"Justice Benham is a trailblazer, freedom fighter and fiercely compassionate soul who has always led by example and personified integrity," Kemp said. "The profession of law and Georgia's judiciary are immeasurably better because of Robert Benham. Neither will be the same once he leaves the bench.”

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