In his nearly 18 years on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Duane Benton has authored almost 800 opinions. Throw in the preceding 13 years on the Missouri Supreme Court, and the cumulative total approaches nearly 1,000 opinions.
From Kansas City, his current home, or Jefferson City, his home the preceding 26 years, Benton’s 47-year legal career is as iconic as it gets. But beyond his sizable judicial impact, Benton’s singular career highlight is a more personal one: the May 2021 appointment of daughter Megan Benton as an associate circuit judge in Platte County.
“All her life, she’s been first-rate at everything,” Benton said of his daughter, who graduated atop her Vanderbilt law class after earning bachelor and master’s degrees at Emory University in Atlanta. Son Grant, meanwhile, is a health-care administrator in Nashville.
Benton’s own academic journey carried him from Willow Springs to Northwestern University as an undergraduate and then Yale Law School, where he was managing editor of the law journal and a classmate of current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. One year ahead at Yale was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, with whom Benton also shared classes.
The Vietnam veteran and Naval War College graduate then spent four years as a U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General while also earning a night-school MBA and accounting degree from Memphis State University (he remained a Navy Reserve officer until 2002, retiring at the rank of captain).
Two years as chief of staff to a Missouri congressman and six years of private practice in the Missouri capital followed before then-Gov. John Ashcroft appointed Benton to his cabinet as Missouri’s 14th director of revenue from 1989 to 1991.
“For three years, I had the worst job in state government, and was blessed to be rewarded with the best job in state government,” Benton joked about his high court appointment, which included a term as chief justice. He also picked up an LLM from the University of Virginia School of Law while on the bench.
Benton envisioned remaining a Missouri Supreme Court justice until mandatory retirement. The lure of lifetime tenure, and the ability to have an impact across the seven Midwestern states in the 8th Circuit, is what made the difference, said Benton, who is now 71.
“I learn something new most days,” he said. “I learn from the other judges, I learn from lawyers, I learn from courthouse staff.”
Outside the courtroom, Benton is a deacon emeritus and trustee emeritus of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City and a leader in Rotary International, for which he led two clubs, a district, and several international meetings. Benton also was named a 2021 winner of Missouri Lawyers Media’s Diversity & Inclusion Award and recently completed a term on the board of the Federal Judicial Center, the education and research arm of the federal courts.