When the Statesboro-Bulloch County Bar Association held a dinner thanking now-retired Superior Court Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. for his service and welcoming Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. to the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit bench, they and others present responded with sentiment and some humor.
Judge F. Gates Peed, not known for public pronouncements outside the courtroom, took a central role at Thursday’s dinner. After 18 years as a Superior Court judge, Peed became chief judge of the four-county circuit Aug. 1 when Woodrum’s retirement took effect. Woodrum had been a Superior Court judge 22 years and the chief judge for the past 17 years.
Also present was now-Senior Judge John R. “Robbie” Turner, who retired as a full-time judge at the end of 2016 after 20 years in the Superior Courts and 12 before that in Bulloch County State Court. Speaking of himself, Turner and Woodrum as having become like siblings during their shared service, Chief Judge Peed recapped an era.
“Together, Judge Woodrum, Judge Turner and myself overlap about 20 years service on the Superior Court,” Peed said. “We went through, I might say as well – although this makes me feel weak in the knees to even say it – about a hundred years of judicial service between the three of us.
“And he’s the oldest,” he added after a brief pause, indicating Turner at the back of the room and triggering laughter from the lawyers and guests.
The local Bar Association, which has about 100 lawyers as members, hosted the event in a banquet hall owned by the Home Builders Association of Statesboro. About 130 people attended.
“Judge Woodrum has given 30 years to our circuit, so we’re excited to celebrate and tell him ‘Thank you,’ and then to invite Judge Bennett in and let him know how much we appreciate him,” Statesboro-Bulloch County Bar Association President Paige Navarro said before the program. “He’s a private attorney, so we’re very glad that he’s making that transition, giving up his practice to take the bench.”
Bar and bench
From a traditional barrier that separates onlookers from the front of the courtroom, lawyers are collectively referred to as “the bar.” Similarly, the judges of a court are its “bench.”
The current Ogeechee Circuit bench, which supplies judges to the Superior Courts of Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins and Screven counties, consists of Peed, Judge Michael T. Muldrew, who was elected in 2016 and has served since January 2017, and now Bennett.
With Woodrum retiring less than two years into a four-year term, the state Judicial Nominating Commission took applications and made recommendations to Gov. Nathan Deal, who chose Bennett and swore him in at the Capitol in Atlanta on Aug. 27.
The Bar Association’s gift to Bennett for his new office was a plaque-mounted photo of that ceremony. But first, Richard Denney, First Judicial Administrative District court administrator, presented Woodrum a resolution honoring his retirement, signed by Chief Justice P. Harris Hines of the Georgia Supreme Court and First District Administrative Judge Jeffrey H. Kight.
Woodrum expressed appreciation to the Ogeechee Circuit’s legal professionals and remembered a previous generation of judges.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with all of you through the years, and you’ve made it possible for us to run a court system that has effectively and efficiently moved cases at a rapid pace,” Woodrum said. “That’s quite an accomplishment. That was something that Judge Martin, Judge Neville and also Judge Hawkins set the pace for when I came along back years ago.”
Judge Faye Sanders Martin, Bulloch County’s first female lawyer and the circuit’s first female judge, who served full-time from 1978 to 2000, attended Thursday’s dinner. She filled in as a senior judge for years after her retirement but is now a resident of a local assisted living home.
In fact, Lovett Bennett’s mother, Sara Neville Bennett, Ph.D., a retired Georgia Southern University biology professor, resides at the same home and was also present. Her brother, the late Judge William J. “Joe” Neville Sr., served the circuit from 1984 until 1996.
The Judge Hawkins that Woodrum mentioned was the late Superior Court Judge William Colbert Hawkins from Screven County. Serving 1969-1984, he was the last sole judge of the circuit before a second judgeship, Martin’s, and then a third, Woodrum’s, were added.
“You have a very difficult job. Private lawyers, the public defenders, the district attorney’s office have very, very difficult jobs,” Woodrum told the group. “Those days are very long in the courtroom and you have some very difficult people that you’re having to work with … and I’m sure that Mr. Bennett understands that. Some of those days will be very long.”
Now-Senior Judge Woodrum also specifically thanked Jimmie Faye White, his Superior Court judicial administrator for those 22 years. She worked with him for four years before that. Woodrum was previously Jenkins County State Court judge, and a judge for more than 30 years altogether.
Woodrum asked Bennett to be patient with young lawyers and to encourage young people who want to become lawyers.
“Also I’ve found out through the years, you’re going to kind of have to look out for the old lawyers too,” said Woodrum, now 66.
That was some of the gentler humor during an event that at moments resembled a celebrity roast. The imaginary book “Stories about Lovett” that Keith Barber, Statesboro’s Municipal Court judge, summarized will not be reviewed here. Nor will Peed’s reading of an angry citizen’s comments about Woodrum on a judge-rating website be quoted, but people laughed at these in context.
The new judge
Bennett, 61, has 35 years experience as an attorney, including 34 in Statesboro.
He attained his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern, a master’s in business administration from Georgia State University and his law degree from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University.
From the early 1990s until the early 2000s, Bennett served as a public defender in Candler and Emanuel counties. He was city court judge for Brooklet and Register until his Superior Court appointment.
He and his wife, Missy, EdD,. have two sons. Will Bennett graduated from Mercer University’s law school in May and is now working on a specialized master’s degree in law at New York University. Michael Bennett attained a master’s degree in finance and works for a financial firm in Atlanta.
Before his interview with the Judicial Nominating Commission, Lovett Bennett heard he would be asked what judge he would most like to emulate.
Role models he considered included Martin, Turner, his “Uncle Joe” Neville, and Middle Circuit Judges Bobby Reeves and Kathy S. Palmer, he said.
But then Bennett recalled how he had represented a young man in a criminal case years ago. His client faced a potential sentence of one to 20 years, and unable to resolve the case with the district attorney, Bennett told the young man’s mother they would have to let the judge decide her son’s fate.
They had watched Woodrum handling other cases all morning, and at lunch, the mother asked Bennett if this was the judge who would decide.
“I said, ‘Yes it is,’ and she said, ‘Well, I don’t know if he’s going to give him jail time or not, but I’ll tell you this, if he makes the decision, I’ll be satisfied with the result,’” Bennett recalled. “That’s quite a compliment. You’ve got your son in somebody else’s hands and you trust that man enough to make a decision. I hope I have some of that before it’s all over.”