COVINGTON, Ga. - Justice Anthony Kennedy’s long career on the U.S. Supreme Court includes making a little history in Newton County’s court system too.
Kennedy was the keynote speaker on May 4, 1999, for the dedication of the Newton County Judicial Building. It was the first new courthouse for the county in 115 years.
“Maybe Covington is a small town … but for you and America, this is as big an undertaking as is possible,” Kennedy said in remarks reported by The Covington News.
“The principle that the people rule themselves may be small, but stands for the biggest idea in history.”
Kennedy said the county’s investment in a new Judicial Building was an expression of “the best values of the law.”
Kennedy on Wednesday announced his intention to retire from the Supreme Court at the end of July. He is 81. President Donald Trump is expected to nominate Kennedy’s successor soon.
Judge John M. Ott served on the Superior Court bench then and now is the chief judge for the Alcovy Circuit. Wednesday afternoon, he remembered the dedication ceremony and Kennedy’s visit as “a great day” in Newton County.
“It was held outside of the Judicial Building out there, between where that entrance is where you go in now and the old courthouse,” Ott said.
“They had the road (Usher Street Northwest) closed down. He came out and talked, he and his wife (Mary). Billy Smith and Irene Smith had Dixie Manor, and they had prepared a luncheon for him. It was quite a day.”
Superior Court Judge Samuel D. Ozburn arranged Kennedy’s visit. He worked for more than a year to get Kennedy — who then handled Supreme Court cases from the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — or then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
More than a year before the building dedication, Ozburn secured letters of invitation from Gov. Zell Miller, Chief Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court and Chief Judge Gary Blaylock Andrews of the Georgia Court of Appeals. Ozburn then followed up multiple times with Kennedy’s secretary before finally getting a phone call, then a commitment, from the associate justice.
“It was a great experience that I’ll never forget, begin able to spend some one-on-time with him and his wife,” Ozburn said Wednesday.
Anthony and Mary Kennedy got a tour of Newton County homes, lunch at Dixie Manor with a Georgia flair including peaches and Coca-Cola, and visits to local sites.
“He’s just a very gracious fellow,” Ozburn said. “He spoke on the importance of the courthouse and what it meant to our system of justice and how people view the law. He spoke for about 30 or 40 minutes and did not take a note to the podium.”
Even without the use of notes, Ott said, the speech was “very coherent and cogent.”
Other dignitaries taking part in the dedication of the courthouse were Judge Marvin W. Sorrells, now a senior judge in the Alcovy Circuit; Davis Morgan, then the chairman of the Board of Commissioners; Gov. Roy Barnes; and Chief Judge Edward H. Johnson of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
The Revs. Hezekiah Benton, of Bethlehem Baptist Church, and Donald Martin, of First United Methodist Church of Covington, offered prayers at the event. The Eastside High School marching band performed and the Newton High School Junior ROTC Color Guard kept watch and presented the colors.
Newton High student Andy Millsor sang the national anthem.
Other court system officials in office at the time included Linda D. Hays, who remains the clerk of the Superior Court; District Attorney Alan Cook; Judge Billy J. Waters of the Newton County Juvenile Court; and Judge Henry Baker of the Newton County Probate and Magistrate courts.
Ozburn said other federal judges also came to hear from the associate justice, and the event attracted a national audience on television.
“I remember it was covered on C-SPAN and a friend of mine in Arizona contacted me,” he said. “It brought a lot of great publicity to our community. We tried to involve as many people as we could.”
That even meant members of the general public having the chance to meet a Supreme Court justice, something relatively few people get to say they have done.
“To see the everyday person to go up and shake the hand of someone who was a Supreme Court justice — that went on for an hour and a half or two hours and he never complained,” Ozburn said.
“It was,” Ott said, “a red-letter day for Newton County.”