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Judge Stephanie Thacker: A Legacy of Uplifting Women

Judge Stephanie Thacker is the embodiment of the dreams of the strong women who came before her—a legacy she is carrying on through mentorship of the next generation of lawyers and judges.

Stephanie has enjoyed a celebrated career in law. She spent years prosecuting cases of domestic violence and child exploitation (as well as many other fundamental issues), helped enact vital policies to protect women, and has served for the last decade as a judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

She has come a long way from humble beginnings. Stephanie was born in the small southern West Virginia town of Hamlin. “When I grew up, we had the only stoplight in the county,” she says with a chuckle. “But now, that stoplight isn’t even there, because they realized a stop sign would do just fine.”

In Hamlin, Stephanie and her siblings were raised by her tough and vibrant mother and grandmother, who ran the only bar in town.

“Everything I needed to know, I learned in Granny Thacker’s bar,” she says.

And while Hamlin was the kind of place where the majority didn’t pursue education after high school, Stephanie says, her mom and grandmother made it clear to her from a young age that she would go to college. She attended Marshall University, where she earned business and marketing degrees.

Stephanie’s mother also played an important role in setting her on her life’s path after college. She encouraged Stephanie to consider law school, so Stephanie took the admissions test to appease her.

“I was accepted to WVU, but still, I didn’t know whether I wanted to go or not,” she says. “I think—coming from a smaller place—I think I was afraid to enter that big bad world. I didn’t know if I would fit in at law school.”

Stephanie recalls her mother saying they should just go look at the school. But when they arrived in Morgantown, her mother revealed that she had bought a trailer behind the stadium for Stephanie.

“I said, well what if I don’t go to law school?” Stephanie remembers. “And she said, ‘well I guess you’ll have to pay me back one way or another…’ So, I went to law school.”

It proved to be the right move. After earning her degree, Stephanie loved practicing law. At the start of her career, she moved to Pittsburgh for a short while to work as an associate with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. She soon entered public service as a federal prosecutor, taking on cases to protect some of the most vulnerable and exploited.

“Those sorts of cases I found more fulfilling for me, as a prosecutor,” she says.

While working in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, Stephanie served as part of the trial team in the first federal domestic violence prosecution in the U.S. She later moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the Department of Justice in the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

In addition to prosecuting cases, Stephanie helped with policy and legislation around domestic violence and child exploitation, drafting policy and statements for Congress or the Attorney General. She was also involved in training law enforcement and prosecutors in the U.S. and around the world in best practices when dealing with violence against women.

When she speaks of some of the victims she has represented or helped over the years, you can see how much their lives mean to her. She recalls with specificity the circumstances of cases from years ago, whether it be children trapped in a cult testifying against their own parents or a domestic abuse victim getting justice after far too long.

“The things I keep with me, the victims of those crimes…” she says. “I still think of [them] frequently. I’m proud of how the Violence Against Women Act has helped so many. […] and that my work has allowed victims to have a voice who would normally not have a voice.”

After working for the Department of Justice, Stephanie made her way back to West Virginia, where she continued to practice litigation in several areas, including environmental and toxic tort and criminal defense. Then, she received word from Senator Jay Rockefeller that she was on a short list of possible candidates to fill a vacancy on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

She asked for a little time to consider the role. It wasn’t something she aspired to, or had ever considered pursuing. But once again, her matriarchs helped guide her.

“I drove around [thinking about the opportunity] and I finally parked under a tree. It was a beautiful May day and I thought about my Granny Thacker,” Stephanie says. “This is something she would probably want me to do.”

She said yes to the interview. After a long process, President Obama nominated Stephanie to fill the role and the United States Senate confirmed her. Stephanie will celebrate 10 years in the Fourth Circuit this spring. She keeps Granny Thacker’s photo on her desk, and whenever she has hard decisions to consider, Stephanie looks to it.

She is also furthering Granny’s legacy of pushing women to their best heights by helping the next generation. Despite all her accomplishments, Stephanie doesn’t like to talk about herself. All too often, she diverts conversation of her own achievements and accolades to those of her law clerks, and how proud she is of seeing them spread their wings.

“One of the best parts of my job is my law clerks,” she says. “I have about 30 law clerks and about half of them are women. I like to think I am a mentor to all my clerks, but in recent years I have been spending more time building connections between my female law clerks so they can network together.”

Stephanie maintains relationships with her co-workers and mentees from all her jobs, often finding time to meet up with them while traveling or creating opportunities for networking and continued growth.

When it comes to the advice she gives her clerks, Stephanie says, “Work hard, do good work, maintain your integrity, and take opportunities when they are presented to you. Always leave room for serendipity. And, it really is true that mother knows best.”

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