After Hours: Judge Ben Studdard

When Judge Ben Studdard left his hometown to attend Mercer University, he had two goals: 1. Go to law school. 2. Don’t come back. He did the first, but didn’t quite manage the second.  The Henry County native says, “I had a good reputation here, and found a professional home with a good local firm, so I came back and enjoyed a general practice in my home town for some 14 years before taking the bench.”

Judge Ben StuddardIn 1998, the State Court of Henry County was created. Judge Studdard (left with Zachary Taylor mug) was elected the first judge of the court and remained the sole judge until 2003. Twenty years after his first election, his court has four judges. He admits that it’s challenging to organize a multi-judge court without the assistance of a court administrator. “I’ve been intentional about trying to create a culture of teamwork and cooperation among the different judges’ chambers and clerk’s office, and I’ve been blessed to have some outstanding teammates who’ve made it work.”

Judge Studdard answered a few questions about his life on and off the bench.

As to who influenced his work as a judge, he says:

“I’ve had many mentors as a judge. The superior court judges I grew up practicing in front of – Sam Whitmire, Hal Craig, Byron Smith – were very kind to me and helped me learn my elbow from a hot rock.[i] Judge Whitmire was the epitome of the Southern gentleman – I never heard him raise his voice at anyone, even when holding someone in contempt. Judge Craig would listen and took pains to make right decisions, even when someone was acting like a knucklehead. Judge Smith taught me the value of theater in the courtroom. And our Probate Judge, Del Buttrill, taught me that caring about people is at least as important as expertise in the law. Judge Buttrill wasn’t a lawyer, but he cared enough to look for ways to help people find positive change, especially from alcohol or substance abuse. And when Henry County State Court was created, he took me aside and told me to run.  

“When I took the bench, I had nobody local to turn to, to learn what a State Court Judge was supposed to do. But no worries – many great State Court Judges in other counties were gracious enough to offer advice, support and encouragement. I was blessed to have advice and help from great judges like Harold Benefield in Clayton County, Howard Cook in Gwinnett, Fletcher Sams in Fayette, Ed Carriere in DeKalb, and the legendary Taylor Phillips in Bibb.”

What do you enjoy most about being a judge or what is the greatest reward of your job?

“I get a great deal of job satisfaction from being a judge. It’s a great way to give back to the community that raised me. I get to be a guardian of both the public safety and individual freedom. I get to help shape the culture of the legal community and the community as a whole. I get to help raise up the next generation of lawyers and pass on the lessons my mentors taught me.

“Being a lawyer can be frustrating because, no matter how good a job you do, some knucklehead judge may still get it wrong. But when you’re the judge, that never happens. Well, almost never.

"Best of all, a judge, especially a judge like me who presides over misdemeanor prosecutions, often gets the opportunity to take someone who has taken a wrong turn in life and help them find their way back to a better place. That’s incredibly rewarding.”

You’ve been pretty active in the judicial community as President of the Council of State Court Judges, a member of the Judicial Council, and as a member of several committees throughout the years. Why is it important to be involved state-wide or nationally?

“You give, and you receive back. Our groups of judges support each other. A judge who tries to do it all alone is probably doing it wrong – the law is too complex to figure it all out yourself, and it changes every day. We need each other for guidance and professional support. The other branches of government need our input in deciding what the law ought to be, and in understanding how their plans and proposals will affect the people we all serve. On a personal level, my wife and I have greatly enjoyed the friendships we’ve formed with judges from Atlanta to Albany, and from LaFayette to Savannah.”

You competed on Jeopardy! Tell us a little about that experience.

“Yes I did, and a few months later my daughter was on Kids’ Jeopardy! This was in 2002. I like to claim that we are the only father/daughter pair to ever be on the show, and I steadfastly refuse to research and see if it’s actually true. It was a great experience for both of us. Neither of us won, but she had the higher final score, so she has bragging rights.

“I could go on for days about that experience, but I’ll just share one little tidbit: my daughter, Gracie, was in the studio audience when I competed. I needed to answer Final Jeopardy correctly to win. But I couldn’t puzzle out the clue, so after racking my brain, I wrote down “Who is Gracie Studdard?” Thus, she’s the only person I know who can honestly say she was once the answer to Final Jeopardy. (Not the correct answer mind you; but she was the answer.)

Reader, can you answer the Final Jeopardy! question Judge Studdard missed:

Category: U.S. Stamps.

Clue: In late October, 2001, Tony Curtis and Lance Burton unveiled the new stamp honoring this person.

You’ve been known to practice the saxophone at the annual Council of State Court Judges meetings. When did you begin playing? Are you in a band?

“I started playing sax (mostly tenor, sometimes alto) somewhere around age 40. I played other woodwinds in my school days, but let’s face it, clarinet is just not as sexy as a saxophone. (Not the way I played clarinet, anyway.)

“My wife and I helped start a Methodist Church about that time, with a contemporary worship style, and they had a great little rock ‘n’ roll band, but they really needed a sax. About that time, my second daughter, Lydia, took up playing saxophone for about six months, then lost interest. So there was a saxophone in the house, and there was a band that needed a saxophone (in my humble opinion) – clearly, the Lord wanted me to fulfill my lifelong desire to play a sax. I took Lydia’s spot at sax lessons, much to her teacher’s surprise and amusement, and a few months later showed up at band practice. Which was great, and the band was gracious to overlook my shortcomings (considering that I was the only best sax player available) – but they had no music for me, just lyric sheets with guitar chords. Whatever I played, I had to make up, which meant that it was, by definition, correct.

“In an effort to minimize the amount by which I embarrassed myself, I found a sax teacher who specialized in jazz and improv, and learned how to make stuff up on a horn. And along the way, he taught me a lot about music theory and jazz history, which was great. So I became shameless enough to take my horn with me to judge meetings.

“We later returned to our roots at First Methodist, which doesn’t have a rock band, so my chances to play are now limited to the occasional offertory solo. I don’t have enough time to devote to a band outside church because of my next answer. But I love to play.”

What are some other passions when you are off the bench?

Judge Ben Studdard with medals“I run like a fool. I ran my first 5k at the age of 46. (I keep reinventing myself every few years, you see.) I ran my first half-marathon at 48. I ran my first marathon at, I think, 53. I have two goals in running: Run at least 100 miles per month (as of July 2018, 43 months and counting), and run at least a half-marathon in each state (15 states so far). In June 2018, Sherri and I flew out to Salt Lake City and I ran half-marathons over three consecutive days in three states – Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.

“I also read a lot, especially American history. I have a collection of coffee mugs featuring U.S. Presidents. I think I’m up to 25 or so. You can often catch me on the bench drinking from my Martin Van Buren or Zachary Taylor mug. Sorry, that’s probably way nerdier than you wanted to know.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Yes. I could beat David Darden at trivia with one hand tied behind my back.

 




[i] Quote from Steve McQueen, The Magnificent Seven. Ever the studious historian, Judge Studdard provided this cite.

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Pop Quiz

In 2002, Judge Ben Studdard competed on Jeopardy! Can you answer the Final Jeopardy question he couldn't?

Category: U.S. Stamps.

Clue: In late October, 2001, Tony Curtis and Lance Burton unveiled the new stamp honoring this person.

Find the answer on our Facebook and Twitter accounts: @GACourts!

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