DeAndrea Gist Benjamin, ’97 law, was confirmed earlier this year to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
The Columbia native, who is married to former Columbia mayor and fellow USC alumnus Steve Benjamin, has served for the past decade on South Carolina’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, a state trial court of general jurisdiction.
She has also been active in the community, serving on the S.C. Bar Board of Governors and Young Lawyers Division as well as the Children’s Law Committee and the Sexual Trauma Services Board.
Benjamin becomes only the second woman of color to serve on the Fourth Circuit. Benjamin sat down with USC Today to talk about life choices and how her experiences in law school guided her career.
You grew up in Columbia and decided to go to Winthrop University, did you have a different career path in mind?
Part of the reason why I did not go to USC for undergrad is because I grew up in Columbia. While at Winthrop, I majored in psychology, and I would come home during the summers and work. One summer, I did an internship with then-Attorney General Travis Medlock. I was working on asbestos cases with Henry White, who is now in the general counsel's office at USC. One day I accompanied him to federal district court, and when I walked in, there was Judge Matthew J. Perry. He was larger than life and very impressive. After that, I decided ‘I want to be a judge.’ And so, of course, everyone said, well you must go to law school. In law school, I told my friends that I intended on being a judge one day.
So it was that internship that changed the path of your career?
That and my dad, who is a lawyer, also went to South Carolina for law school. In hindsight, I'm sure my dad had something to do with me getting the internship at the Attorney General's office to persuade me to consider law school.
You know kids, if you say, ‘I want you to do this,’ they will say, ‘No, I want to do something else.’ So, I guess it was his way of putting me in the appropriate place at the appropriate time.
Tell us a little bit about that experience in law school. What are some of the things that kind of stand out that maybe kind of helped you on this path to being a judge?
I would say the connection between the university and the community, While I was in law school, Judge Perry, Justice Ernest Finney, and other judges and lawyers would often participate in law school programs and activities. I try to do the same by inviting students to intern and extern in my chambers.
Any professors stand out?
My constitutional law professor was Professor Bill McAninch. His classes were tough —students called him ‘Mac the Knife.’ But his classes were always engaging and interesting and he challenged us. I signed up for several of his classes — criminal law and his advanced criminal law class. I also thought he was pretty cool. He drove a motorcycle to work most days.
And then I had Professor Jim Burkhard and his wife, Phyllis, who was in our career development office. They were very hands-on and personable. Once again, tough class, really tough class. It's good to be able to have a conversation outside of class. And that was the great thing about a smaller law school, you could have a one-on-one conversation with your professors in a social setting and seek advice.
Would you say either one of these were like a mentor or was it somebody else who might have been more of a mentor?
My mentor, who I met in law school was Judge Michelle Childs. She was a young lawyer when we met. She was a mentor then and is still a mentor. I like to say I have followed in her footsteps. When I graduated from law school, she encouraged me to become active in the South Carolina Bar Young Lawyers Division. She was the chair of Young Lawyers at the time — several years later, I became the chair of the division. She was a state circuit court judge and when she moved to federal court, I was elected the following year to the circuit court. I was assigned her chambers. She moved out. I moved in. She was appointed last year to the D.C. Circuit, and I will be on the Fourth Circuit. We will be colleagues.
You clerked for a groundbreaking Gamecock in Casey Manning — the first Black scholarship athlete at USC. What did you learn from Judge Manning and that experience?
Oh, wow, what am I still learning from Judge Manning! I clerked for him my first year out. I learned so much about the profession — how attorneys are supposed to work together, civility, and patience. And the interesting thing is when I was elected to the state circuit court, Judge Manning's office was right across from my office. I am his forever law clerk; he still tells me what to do.
Talk a bit about that civility piece of it. Why is that so important?
The great thing about going to law school at USC is the relationships you develop. There is a good chance that you will be on the opposite side from someone that you know, someone that you are friends with, maybe a roommate, maybe someone you dated. Sometimes that may confuse clients, but you can be a zealous advocate for your client and be polite to the other side. So we try to encourage that, especially with our younger lawyers. Sometimes they watch TV and they think that we're supposed to be enemies, but we're not.
Because you never know what side of a case you're going to be on.
Exactly. This is one of the things Judge Manning always says — especially in civil cases: Everyone has a job to do and we should respect each other’s position. There's no reason for us to be enemies or fighting. When you walk out of the courtroom, you should be able to have a civil conversation. I believe in treating people as I would like to be treated.
So the judicial temperament part of the equation, will that be as big a factor in the appellate arena?
Oh yes, because the judges interact with the attorneys. Everyone on the Fourth Circuit has been very welcoming to me. The Fourth Circuit has a reputation of being the collegial circuit. One of the traditions is for the judges to walk down after arguments and shake the hands of the parties.
Much of your legal career has been devoted to children and family legal issues — from your time as a prosecutor in the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s office to serving on the Juvenile Parole Board before becoming a city judge. You even ran for a Family Court judgeship. What in your background led you to focus on those areas and what do you hope you accomplished?
My mom was a social worker for the Department of Social Services, and she was assigned to be on emergency calls, once or twice a month. She would often have to get up in the middle of the night to take children into emergency protective custody. A few times, I remember my dad not wanting her to go by herself and my brother and I climbing in the car in our pajamas to ride with my parents.
My mom also worked at Vocational Rehab, working with people who had substance abuse dependencies and assisting them in finding training and employment. So I would credit my mom for my “social work” side.
I've been really fortunate in my life to have wonderful parents. But we know that is not the case for everyone. And so having the opportunity to have some type of impact on the lives of children, some of our most vulnerable citizens in the state, is probably why I started, first as a juvenile prosecutor and then at the Attorney General's office, working on violence against women cases. And when you work for the state, you do a little bit of everything. So, I ended up doing some criminal sexual conduct cases and elder abuse cases.
In your federal judicial questionnaire, you say “Throughout my legal career, I have been committed to serving the underprivileged, underrepresented, and socially or economically disadvantaged.” Why have you chosen that path?
To be honest with you, a lot of that goes back to my experience in law school. I was on a pro bono board at the law school, and that stuck with me, just having that direct impact of helping others through the pro bono program at the university. Pam Robinson was the director and she's amazing.
So thinking on your mother’s influence on your career choices, how much does having two daughters and trying to be a good example affect your daily life?
Well, I want to be a good example for them and for other girls across the state, just trying to set the example that with hard work, dedication and commitment, you can do anything that you choose to do. I try to be a good example and I hope my daughters are as proud of me as I am of them. They are my inspiration.
Your daughters attended your Senate confirmation hearing.
Yes. We had to have a conversation with our youngest, saying ‘You know, there will be some tough questions and you need to be careful of your facial expressions.’ I said, ‘When you go into the hearing, they'll give you the option of keeping your mask on. ‘If you don't think you can control your facial expressions, leave your mask on.’ She’s the one who wants to be a lawyer.
We are very proud of them. They were just 4 and 2 when their dad was elected mayor of Columbia, so they don’t know what it's like not to be in the public eye. They're really good girls and we're proud of them.
So your husband, former Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, has recently gotten his own high-level job in the D.C. area. How have the two of you balanced your very visible and high-stress careers?
With the kids, it's day by day. So, for example, he was out of town earlier this week, so when he got back, I said ‘You're taking Jordan to school in the morning. It's your turn.’ I did a soccer game on Tuesday night and Steve gets to go tonight.
We just try to have a work life and family balance. As lawyers and judges, we talk about scales all the time — the scales of justice and balancing them — you want the scales to be even. But when it comes to family, they're not even. In our house family always outweighs work. We said it early on and we continue to say it: “The girls come first.”
Family time like the soccer game earlier this week is a good way for me to wind down, breathe, and yell and scream with the other soccer moms.