If Bob Davenport’s courtroom were a country song – and it sure seemed like it, with all the saints and sinners and everybody in between that walked through the doors over 22 years – the title would be “The Fair Shake Saloon.”
Because in the longtime magistrate’s courtroom, everybody was equal. Everybody was treated the same. The poor guy in the overalls was the same as the rich guy in the fancy suit. Cops and lawyers and defendants and prosecutors knew it in the Rock Hill courtroom – officially called the Catawba-Ebenezer court – among the busiest in South Carolina with thousands of cases each year.
But no more.
Robert “Bob” Davenport, 55, is retiring. The end of June means the end of the career for the throwback judge. The man who also has been a volunteer firefighter for four decades – and who has cooked a million pounds of barbecue for worthy causes without ever taking a nickel – will not put on a robe again.
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“It was an honor to serve the people of York County and the people of South Carolina,” Davenport said Tuesday.
Davenport was asked what being a judge meant.
“It means everybody gets treated fair,” he said.
If there was ever a judge who did not put on airs because he believed he was a judge of the people, it was Davenport. The magistrate courts are where the traffic cases, the misdemeanors, the meat-and-potatoes of the judicial system, are heard. In 22 years, Davenport heard tens of thousands of cases.
“He helped so many people, so many ways,” said Lynne Benfield, York County’s chief magistrate. “Bob will be terribly missed.”
Davenport ran his courtroom like he lives his life – straight ahead, fair and honest. All in the court were heard, as long as they were respectful. If not, Davenport was old school.
“Judge Davenport served the people of York County so well, for so long,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, the Rock Hill Republican who, along with Democratic Sen. Creighton Coleman, has to pick a successor. He said he and Coleman will likely nominate a successor within two weeks. Magistrates in South Carolina are appointed by the governor after a recommendation and confirmation by the state senate.
There is no judge, maybe in all of America, like Bob Davenport. This is a man who chopped cotton as a kid, who drove a logging truck and worked for Duke Power before becoming a judge. Cops needing warrants, lawyers needing conferences, defendants needing an ear of a regular man who wears the robe, could find Davenport inside his simple, austere office. Or outside his Rock Hill courtroom on Cherry Road, next to his huge pickup, sneaking a cigarette.
Davenport made time for them all.
When someone would address him as “your honor,” Davenport was quick to tell that person that he was honored to serve them and they would get a fair shake in his courtroom.
That is who Davenport has been as a judge, juggling court with his other life as a volunteer who came up from the cotton fields outside Rock Hill. For 38 years, Davenport has been a firefighter with the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department southwest of the city. Uncountable weekends and nights, Davenport hauled a cooker to slow-cook barbecue to raise money for the department and for other causes – from kids with cancer to school groups raising money.
When two Newport volunteer firefighters were hurt in 2015 at a house fire, Davenport was there to assist. He arrived driving the truck, pulling his turnout safety gear on right over his judge clothes as he rushed to help others.
When a tornado ripped through south of Rock Hill in November 2011, killing three people, Davenport was among the dozens of volunteers there all night and through the next day.
York County has a dozen magistrates in courtrooms in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Clover and York. They handled everything from bonds through trials, thousands of cases every year.
In 2011, Davenport drove to New York to get a steel beam salvaged from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center. He brought the beam back so people here would always remember those who died, and the injustice of violence and hate and the courage of volunteers and responders.
Within minutes of having delivered the beam to the York County fire training grounds – where it became part of a 9/11 memorial – Davenport was back at work, taking sworn testimony and signing arrest warrants for cops right there on the hood of the truck.