Richard B. Russell Sr. served Georgia as a state legislator and appeals court justice before being elected chief justice of the state supreme court in 1922. Upon his death in 1938 his fellow supreme court justices said that “considering what was done by him directly, together with the forces he influenced, few, if any, other men have left or will ever leave such an imprint on the life of this state.”
Richard Brevard Russell Sr. was born in Marietta on April 27, 1861, to Rebecca Harriette Brumby and William John Russell. His father was a prosperous middle-class textile manufacturer who lost all of his possessions in the Civil War (1861-65). The eldest of six children, Russell grew up determined to reclaim the family’s prominence by serving his state in political office. Russell graduated from the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens in 1879, finishing fourth in his class. The following year he graduated from law school at UGA.
In 1882 he was elected to the Georgia General Assembly and at twenty-one was its youngest member. He served three terms in the state legislature, during which time he made education his priority. He worked for state funding for the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and in 1887 he wrote the first bill for a state-funded women’s college. Although the bill did not pass until the next session, after he had left the legislature to become solicitor general of the Western Circuit of the Superior Courts of Georgia, Russell maintained an interest in education throughout his life. He was a trustee of UGA from 1887 to 1889 and from 1913 to 1933 (he served as chairman of the trustee board for the last ten years of his tenure). In 1916 he was appointed to the board of the Georgia Normal and Industrial College (later Georgia College and State University), and he went on to serve as president of that board from 1918 to 1933. He also insisted that his children have as much schooling beyond high school as they wished.
In 1883 Russell married Barnesville native Marie Louise Tyler, who died in 1886 during a third stillbirth. Five years later he married Ina Dillard of Oglethorpe County. Their first child was born in 1893, and over the next twenty years the couple had fourteen more children, thirteen of whom survived to adulthood. In 1894 the family moved to a farm in Winder, and in 1902 Russell established the village of Russell just outside the town on U.S. 29. His home in Russell was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
In 1898 Russell was elected superior court judge of the Western Circuit. Reelected in 1902, he resigned in 1906 to run for governor but was defeated in the primary by Hoke Smith. Later that year he allowed friends to put his name on the general election ballot for the new Court of Appeals of Georgia. Although he did not campaign for this post, he received the most votes of the sixteen candidates. Russell served on the court from 1907 to 1916 and became chief judge in 1913.
In 1911 Russell ran unsuccessfully against former governor Joseph M. Brown in a gubernatorial contest precipitated when Smith gave up the office to become U.S. senator. Russell was again defeated in 1916, when he ran for U.S. Congress against incumbent Thomas M. Bell. Having resigned the court of appeals to run for Congress, Russell entered private law practice to pay off campaign debts.
In 1922 Russell ran for chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court against incumbent William Fish and was elected. In 1926 he campaigned unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Walter F. George. He returned to the supreme court, where he served until his death on December 3, 1938. Russell remains the only person to have served on both the Georgia Court of Appeals and the state’s supreme court.
While many of Russell’s children sought careers in education, medicine, and the ministry, two of his sons followed their father into civil service. Richard B . Russell Jr. became Georgia’s governor in 1931 and a U.S. senator in 1933. The Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia is named in his honor. In 1940 U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Robert Lee Russell to the federal court of the Northern District of Georgia. He was a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at the time of his death in 1955.