Ruffin's name will go on building

Judge fights to have full title on courthouse rather than sign
Judge John H. Ruffin Jr. was a civil rights leader in Augusta. He was the first black member of the Augusta Bar and the first black chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals.

The standoff over the new courthouse's name appears to be over.

City Administrator Fred Russell said plans have been made to have the full name -- the Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse -- added to the new building.

Although the county's judges and staff were being moved into the building last week, one judge wasn't having any part of it.

"How do you name a building for someone and not even put his name on it?" asked Richmond County State Court Judge David D. Watkins.

Watkins said he was livid when he heard that Rick Acree of facilities maintenance informed Russell back in December that the name wouldn't fit on the building. Acree asked whether a plaque could be installed instead.

Watkins said he confronted Russell, who took responsibility for the decision.

Watkins said he doubts that it was an oversight considering the fight to get the courthouse named after Ruffin, the rejection of his ideas to install a small exhibit about Ruffin's life and work -- because someone might steal it or the county would be obligated to do it for too many others -- and the decision to ask U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to speak at the building's dedication without consulting anyone in the community.

"It's not (Thomas') fault, but his judicial philosophy is the antonym of what Judge Ruffin's was and what it is in the vast majority of the minority community," Watkins said.

Ruffin was an Augusta-area civil rights lawyer who successfully challenged the city's segregated school system and fought many other civil rights battles.

He practiced law for 10 years before the Augusta Bar invited him to join as its first black member.

He was the judicial circuit's first black Superior Court judge, and went on to become the first black chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals.

He died in January 2010 at age 75. At the time, he was teaching at Morehouse College.

Leaders in the black community first proposed naming the new Augusta courthouse after Ruffin in 2008. Then, Commissioner Don Grantham said that it would be better to wait and give others a chance to suggest a name.

In October 2009, Commissioner Corey Johnson brought the issue up again. The first vote failed. Black commissioners asked that the matter be reconsidered -- it had been a year, they had proven other buildings in the county and other courthouses in Georgia had been named for people, and Ruffin was a hero for many, they said, according to the minutes of the meeting.

With Commissioner Joe Bowles' change of heart, a resolution naming the building after Ruffin passed.

Russell said the problem was that the resolution and the minutes did not give clear guidance over how the naming was to be done and the city has no consistent pattern.

The water plant named after Max Hicks and the jail named after Charles Webster just have the names on signs. Carrie J. Mays Gymnasium does have her name on the building, however.

The cost of having the name put on the new courthouse will probably be about $10,000, Russell said. There is money in the budget.

That's far less than another shortfall at the new courthouse -- parking.

The city commission's engineering committee also is scheduled to consider a recommendation today to spend $579,536 to create additional parking spaces nearby at Walker Street and James Brown Boulevard.

About 240 employees will work at the new courthouse. It currently has 309 parking spaces.

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