She Thrives: Chief judge making history and a difference in the courtroom

Updated: Feb. 27, 2019 at 7:02 PM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) -She is the first for the city of Myrtle Beach. Chief Judge Jennifer Wilson is making a difference in the courtroom and she does it as her way of giving back but it’s also the reason why she thrives.

“It is because of the constitution and the law of the constitution that I am here," explained Wilson.

For nearly 20 years, Wilson has served as the Chief Judge of the Myrtle Beach Municipal Court. A profession that has become her calling.

However, becoming a judge was never her dream.

“I wanted to be a trial lawyer,” said Wilson. “I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 7 or 8 years old, for as long as I can remember.”

Wilson said she grew up in Walterboro, South Carolina, a small town just south of Charleston.

She has vivid memories of segregation as a child.

“Walking in downtown Walterboro, there was a drug store called Hyatt’s Pharmacy and the white kids would go there after school to get sodas and ice cream, and we could just walk by. We weren’t allowed in there. And it had a profound impact on me as a child,” said Wilson. “Going through the back door of the dentist office and I can still remember the trees brushing up aside my face as I walked back there to go through the door to go to the separate waiting room.”

Her experience as a child inspired her to focus on change when she became an adult.

“As a child it just didn’t sit well with me. And I wanted to be able to affect some change, because I felt powerless," Wilson said.

She said she would later grab hold of her power while attending college.

“I think had I not gone to Spellman College, I would have not found my worth, and my power as a black woman, as a young black woman, and that’s where I learned that I can do anything and be anything,” stated Wilson.

Wilson would later earn a law degree from Rutgers University School of Law. She served as law clerk to then Circuit Judge Earnest A. Finney Jr. who was South Carolina’s first black circuit judge and later first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.

She served as public defender, prosecutor, and even opened her own private practice as a criminal defense attorney.

In December 1999, Wilson was appointed as the first full-time chief judge. She is the first and only black woman to serve as a Myrtle Beach Municipal judge.

Each day she puts on her robe, ready to rule fair and firm.

“I believe that people, everybody, has a chance of being treated fairly more in this country than anywhere else in the world,” Wilson said. “I envision the court as tribunal where anybody and everybody whether you are a defendant, a lawyer, a juror, a police officer or just an observer, comes in and is treated with respect and with dignity that is very important to me because we are all somebody’s children.”

But Wilson admits as a black woman she hasn’t always experienced that same respect in the courtroom.

Wilson said when first appointed, she recalled people that would not stand out of respect when she entered the courtroom. Wilson also said there were people that told her she didn’t deserve her position, and even tried to sabotage her career.

Wilson said those actions pushed her even more, to succeed in her position. It’s also why she encourages more young women to pursue law careers.

“We will always have the law, in this country we will always need good lawyers and good judges and so I encourage to pursue this area if they are interested,” said Wilson.

Next to her passion for law, she also has a passion for helping people.

She is currently in the process of establishing the homeless court for the city of Myrtle Beach.

Wilson said the idea started when she saw the cycle of the same homeless defendants in her court, and she could only sentence them to pay a fine or go to jail.

“These people don’t have money to pay fines, and going to jail is not going to help most of them, so the homeless court is a way for us to see the underlying issues of homelessness,” explained Wilson.

She hopes to have the court operating in a local shelter, and she wants to also educate the public about the issues of homelessness, stating not everybody is homeless because they choose to be, or they’re lazy and don’t want to work.

Wilson said she’s not done, but to serve as the chief judge for the city has truly been an honor.

“I am humbled and grateful to the Lord because I think that I’ve been blessed but, I also believe that I am a blessing to others and I hope that I have represented my community well, and will continue to do so,” said Wilson.

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