Controversy that might have surrounded Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' Wednesday appearance in Augusta seemed to melt away as the conservative justice spoke of segregation, the importance of courthouses and the legacy of John H. Ruffin Jr., the namesake of the new judicial building.
"We heard in the talk today that Justice Thomas has views that I'm sure Judge Ruffin would agree with," said his widow, Judith Ruffin. "But the fact that we have opposing views is not a reason for the denial of those expressions."
When Thomas was invited to speak last year, some in the community believed his views too sharply contrasted with those of Ruffin, a prominent Augusta civil rights lawyer who later became the first black chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
But on Wednesday, Thomas quickly warmed the crowd of about 600 lawyers, judges, local and state elected officials, city and courthouse personnel, contractors and members of the public, and took time after his speech to speak individually with many of them.
"I think it's particularly important that he pointed out the continuing need for impartiality among the judiciary," said Wayne Brown, an attorney for the city of Augusta.
"I think sometimes society forgets that the one reason we can remain such a peaceful and prosperous nation is that we all have one rule to go by, and that's the rule of law," Brown said.
Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, an attorney and one of several legislators to attend, said Thomas' speech set a high standard.
"It challenged us to really uphold the idea of justice," Stone said.
Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, said Thomas' speech was timely and his appearance "said a lot for the center and said a lot for Judge Ruffin. The city of Augusta should be very proud."
Joseph Wallace, 15, attended the dedication with a school group called Dream Builders.
"I was really happy to see someone from Georgia to have such a high position," Wallace said. "I like that he is for equality among all U.S. citizens."
Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith said the event was "a big bright spot for Augusta. A great Georgian was here representing the Supreme Court. Everything was great."
Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick said Thomas' speech "was very appropriate for the day. This isn't about the court of law, it's about Augusta reaching an accomplishment that was planned for the last decade and a half."
Stephen Hoyl, an architect with Woodhurst, one of the building's designers, was pleased to have a Supreme Court justice speak at the dedication.
"He spoke about the dignity of the building and why it needed to be dignified," Hoyl said.
The structure is actually two buildings in one, with courtroom facilities in a rectangular structure that parallels Walton Way and court offices within the curved structure that extends from it, he said.
On Sunday, a ceremony at the courthouse paying tribute to Ruffin's life will feature speeches by Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham and Chief Appeals Court Judge John J. Ellington.
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver shakes hands with attorney Jim Wall on the steps of the John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse. About 600 people attended the dedication ceremony.