Peggy Walker became a lawyer in order to honor her mother. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, she saw her mother, who held a master’s degree in education from Georgia State, be denied the ability to open credit cards or take out car loans because she was a divorced woman. She decided that when she got older, no one would be able to take advantage of her, that she would know the meaning of each word in every contract.
Keeping this promise to herself led her to Georgia State College of Law in 1983. The law school had just opened, and at the time her son was two years old. She’d already earned a master’s degree in education from Georgia State, but she recognized that if she wanted to make a bigger difference for families, she needed to be in the courtroom.
The College of Law became a home away from home. Her son often played in the on-campus childcare center while her mind was being challenged. She recalls that Lynn Hogue, now Professor of Law Emeritus, taught constitutional law. He often tried to stump her because she had been a history teacher.
“One day, he called on me and I had Laryngitis, but I knew sign language and he got frustrated,” she laughs.
Professor E. Ray Lanier also challenged her. She says, “He called on me for 27 consecutive classes and for 27 classes I answered every question right.”
After graduating from Georgia State Law, Walker worked as a law clerk for Judge Robert J. Castellani, who she describes as a phenomenal mentor. She also opened a litigation firm with her law school classmates Celia Hinson and Jim Davis. They mostly focused on real estate, probate and bankruptcy law as well as some family law. The latter sparked her interest, and in 1998 she had the opportunity to become a full-time judge after having served as a Judge Pro Tempore and Associate Judge.
She still remembers her first day on the bench. Her nerves were a flutter.
“It’s one of the most incredible experiences of your life,” Walker says. “There’s this cloak of responsibility, but there’s no one to tell you how to do your job.”
In her 29 years as a judge, she saw Georgia families at some of their best and worst moments. She still recalls a case where a young boy accidentally killed his friend while they played with a gun at a sleepover. Another is a heinous post-divorce, where a man killed his former spouse and all but one of his children. These tragedies pushed her toward policymaking; and throughout her career she worked on child welfare reform and domestic violence prevention. She was recognized for her policy work at Vice President Joe Biden’s home in the Naval Observatory.
“Trauma is permanent, and the scars are permanent, but what happens afterward is determined by the protective factors,” she says. “That’s why we need to be concerned about politics now. We’re not doing enough to promote resiliency.”
Walker retired from the bench in 2019, but her advocacy work continues. She is working with the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS) to promote early learning and look at inequities among young children. She is also working with Resilient Georgia and she chairs the GBI Child Fatality Review Panel. The state has adopted a new child fatality prevention plan, and they are also working on youth suicide prevention. She is working on the implementation of these plans.
Looking back on her career as a judge, and with an eye toward the future, she appreciates the way that Georgia State Law challenged her mind. She encourages current law students who are interested in becoming judges to continuously educate themselves and develop their empathy muscles early.
“You have to match your talent and skills to your interests and that’s what going to law school allowed me to do,” Walker says. “Law has many possibilities. You are not wedded to any one thing.”
Written by Kelundra Smith