Leaving a legacy: Myrtle Beach’s chief municipal judge retiring after 22 years of service

Published: Mar. 16, 2022 at 8:11 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - After over two decades of service, Myrtle Beach’s Chief Municipal Judge Jennifer Wilson is putting down her gavel.

She’s talked exclusively with WMBF News about her retirement and the legacy she’s leaving behind.

Wilson practiced law for almost 20 years before being appointed to the full-time chief judge position in 2000. She says she’s ready to open a new chapter in her life, but she’s proud to reflect on the pages already written.

Every day Wilson has worn the chief judge robe is literally a part of Myrtle Beach history.

“Being the first African American woman but also the first judge in the position of chief judge. Back in late 1999, the city council decided they wanted to have a full-time attorney as a full-time chief judge,” she said.

But Wilson faced challenges in her journey towards wearing the robe.

She grew up during segregation in Walterboro, South Carolina. Wilson said those life experiences motivated her to become the leader she is today.

“I felt powerless as a child,” she said. “It didn’t feel right to not be able to go where I wanted to go and to not do the things other people did. But I was smart and I knew I wanted to do something where I was in a position of influence and power. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer as a child. All I asked for was an opportunity. I didn’t expect or didn’t require special treatment. I’ve always been willing to work. I’ve worked since I was 13 years old. I put myself through undergrad at Spellman College and law school at Rutgers University School of Law. Paid student loans for years. But I’ve always been willing to work for what I have.”

Wilson also explained how proud she is of the lasting mark she’s leaving on the Myrtle Beach community after being sworn into her position in 2000.

In addition to conducting court matters and supervising staff members, Wilson also helped launch the city’s homeless court.

“It has been the most gratifying experience during my career,” Wilson said.

The program gives a second chance to homeless people facing charges in Myrtle Beach and is aimed to help people presently, recently or at risk of becoming homeless.

If a person who’s homeless is facing charges, they’re able to enroll in a program through the homeless court.

“If they do whatever the caseworker from New Directions requires them to do, whether it’s job training or drug counseling, and they complete the program, then the charges in this court will be dismissed and expunged,” Wilson said. “Oftentimes people who are homeless get into trouble with petty offenses, [such as] trespassing or shoplifting. Many times they commit these crimes not because they’re homeless but in order to survive. A lot of people are one check away from being homeless.”

Right now, Myrtle Beach’s homeless court is temporarily on hold due to COVID-19. Wilson said she’s hopeful her successor will be able to re-launch the court in the future.

Wilson also started night court in Myrtle Beach, so people are able to appear for hearings after they get off work.

She hopes her legacy will motivate any young girl watching to work hard for their education and to go after her dreams, regardless of how hard it may get.

“When I took this position, I realized because I was the first person in this position who happened to be a Black female, that people were going to be watching and observing how I handled this position. So I knew it was on me to do my best,” Wilson said. “Throughout my career, I’ve always had to do better than everybody else. I’ve always felt as a black female I’ve had to prove myself. It was difficult. But I did what I’ve done my whole career and that’s the best that I can. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I think any young girl who looks at me and says they want to do that can do the same. Hard work and education first.”

After officially retiring on March 31, Wilson said she’s looking forward to traveling and “doing nothing” for at least the next six months. She’s also excited to spend more time with her grandchildren.

The city is responsible for appointing Wilson’s successor. As of Wednesday, WMBF News has learned that city leaders have narrowed down the candidate pool to three applicants.

Wilson says it’s important for the person who fills her seat to not only build on her work but also be a judge people can count on.

“It’s important for the community to know their court is a fair court. They have people that are running this place, people who are on the bench, people who work in the offices who are willing to help if they can and are willing to do the right thing. Whoever comes behind me will be able to continue my legacy of just being fair, first in service. People are our greatest resource I believe,” Wilson said.

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