Benton sworn in to 8th U.S. Circuit Court
By Don Hinkle
January 25, 2005
ST. LOUIS – A Missouri Baptist lay leader has become the 57th judge to serve on the powerful Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Duane Benton, a member of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, was administered the oath of office Jan. 13 during an Investiture ceremony before a packed house at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse here.
Nominated by President Bush and easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June, Benton joins 20 other active and senior judges on the federal bench that is just one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. The Eighth Circuit, which hears appeals from U.S. district courts in Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, is one of 11 circuit appellate courts in the federal judiciary. In 2004 it heard approximately 3,000 appeals that affected about 18 million people.
“I thank God for the many opportunities I have had in life,” Benton told more than 200 colleagues, family and friends jammed into the courtroom – among them all of his former fellow justices of the Missouri Supreme Court and about a dozen members of the Eighth Circuit including Chief Judge James B. Loken of Minneapolis and Senior Judge Theodore McMillian of St. Louis, who administered the oath of office to Benton.
The ceremony featured the reading of a letter from President Bush and video taped messages from Missouri’s two U.S. Senators, Republicans Kit Bond and Jim Talent.
Bond characterized Benton as “brilliant, kind, fair” and “a man of highest integrity” who has “a steady and compassionate temperament. But his greatest qualities are as a husband and father.”
Talent called Benton’s appointment “well-deserved” and “ a man of tremendous intelligence … a person with the right temperament to be a judge.”
Long-time friend and colleague Raymond T. Wagner, Jr., vice president, legal counsel for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, served as master of ceremonies and Grant S. Dixton, Office of the White House Counsel, officially commissioned Benton.
“If one group has nurtured me all my life, it’s the Baptists in our state,” Benton said after being administered the oath and then enrobed by his wife, Sandra. “In private practice, while I labored in Harvey Tettlebaum’s front office, the state convention retained me. In public life, Baptists and other Christian churches have sustained me. During the nomination and confirmation process, I rarely got sentimental. But I did break down when several churches – with 40-50 members – sent me a letter or card, signed by each member, saying that they were praying for me.”
Among the throng of well-wishers was a virtual “Who’s Who” of Missouri government and the state’s legal community. Among them Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, State Auditor Claire McCaskill of Kansas City and former Missouri Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway.
Missouri Baptists were well represented and included former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice John Holstein; Hannibal-LaGrange College President Woodrow Burt; Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director David Clippard and wife, Suzanna; MBC Legal Counsel Michael Whitehead and son, Jonathan.
Benton is not considered a judicial activist, but rather a strict interpreter of the constitution.
Benton, widely considered a conservative, will only strengthen a court that seems to lean slightly conservative. Of the Eighth Circuit’s 11 active judges, five were appointed by President George H.W. Bush between 1988 and 1992. Two were appointed by President Clinton and one by President Reagan. The other three seats are occupied by appointees of the current president. Among those three is Judge Lavenski R. Smith of Little Rock, Ark., who along with Benton, gives Southern Baptists two seats at the Eighth Circuit.
Of the 10 senior judges, five were appointed by Reagan; one by the elder Bush, one by Jimmy Carter, and three by President Johnson.
Members of the Eighth Circuit are allowed to live in their hometowns and only gather to hear oral arguments at federal courthouses in St. Louis and Minneapolis.