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— Becoming a district judge is probably not the career Susan Weaver’s classmates at Clinton High School would have expected for her.

She was more social than studious - maybe even a little rebellious - but she also had a strong work ethic and loved learning.

Weaver was voted Most Likely to Try Anything.

“I was in track; I was a cheerleader. I was a member of everything - FFA, FBLA. If there was a club, I was a member of it,” she said.

Although Weaver is now a Conway resident, the 33-year-old’s parents, Ferrell and Mary Kaye Weaver, still live in Clinton, and her hometown supported her in a big way.

She won the May election for district judge with almost 78 percent of the vote in Van Buren County and 48 percent in Faulkner County, defeating Amy Brazil.

Weaver said she has her parents and some of her former high school teachers to thank.

“I would not be here today if not for my parents. They have been an example in every way,” she said. “They were a big, big help in the campaign.”

Her shoes have holes in them from walking door to door, letting the voters know that behind the blond hair and youth is a woman with a lot of experience and determination.

“One of my biggest hurdles was my age and that I’m single,” she said. “I don’t think I have to prove anything; voters made that decision. If I’m concerned about what other people think, I’m doing this for the wrong reasons. I think my work ethic and experience speak for themselves, because most people in Faulkner County didn’t know me coming into this.”

She’s a self-avowed daddy’s girl who started working at Western Sizzlin in Clinton when she was 15. Her father would take her and bring her home at night, when she’d dump her apron, and they’d count her tips.

Weaver, who married at 21 and divorced less than two years later, started out with a different career in mind altogether.

When she started at the University of Central Arkansas, just before her 18th birthday in August, she wanted to be a physical therapist. Her goal soon changed to speech therapy.

“I fell in love with the speech path department,” she said. “I wanted to work with deaf children and autistic children.”

A series of jobs to support her through school changed her mind. First, she was a 911 dispatcher for Faulkner County.

On the side, she transcribed for a court reporter; then she went to work for Circuit Judge David Reynolds of Conway, who also won his race in May to become her cohort as a district judge. She was the first administrative assistant/jury coordinator for Faulkner County circuit courts and worked for all the judges.

“I knew I liked criminal law,” she said.

Still, becoming a lawyer seemed out of reach.

“I think you have this TV image of what lawyers are like and how hard it’s going to be,” she said. “Then you work with them, and you think, ‘They’re people just like we are.’”

She was surrounded by mentors in her job: lawyers Pamela Osment and Tom Courtway, former prosecuting attorneys H.G. Foster and Marcus Vaden, and judges Reynolds and Charles Clawson.

After Weaver finished her speech-pathology degree, she went to the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville.

“ I loved every stinking minute of it,” she said, sitting in her downtown Conway law office.

She spent six weeks with U of A and Ole Miss students studying international law in Cambridge, England.

“It was awesome. We lived in a hostel-type house, all students. It was the summer they had the heat wave over there, and there’s no air conditioning, and it was really hot, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Weaver said she even liked the food, but she finally did search out a Chili’s to get a Coke with ice.

While she was in law school, she worked for the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and waited tables on weekends.

“I waited tables even as a lawyer. I love to cook; I love to wait tables. I think it’s the service, as cheesy as that sounds. I really like working with people and making them happy,” she said.

After law school, Weaver was a law clerk for now-Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Karen Baker when Baker was a Court of Appeals justice. At the same time, Weaver managed Gusanao’s restaurant in Little Rock.

Baker is one of the people she admires.

“Oh, my gosh; she’s just a genius,” Weaver said.

Weaver said she’ll never forget Baker telling her, after reading something Weaver had written, “You actually get it.”

When she got out of law school, Weaver said, she had three goals: “I wanted to be a prosecutor, I wanted to be a judge, and I wanted to be Arkansas’ first woman governor. I’ve since been rethinking that governor part.”

In 2007, Weaver became Vaden’s deputy prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial District and moved back to Conway about a year later.

She helped prosecute two men who beat another man to death with a baseball bat, and they were convicted. She interviewed witnesses and prepared the trial manual. She also worked many sexual-assault cases and was assigned to the domestic-violence division.

Vaden said Weaver “was a wonderful deputy prosecutor. She developed her skills as a trial attorney and was capable of handling about any case we had.”

Although he said Weaver was “very tenacious on all of the cases, her passion seemed to be child sexual-abuse cases. She was really good at it, and she got some really good verdicts. … She was able to strike a bond with the kids.”

Vaden said although Weaver is young, “she’s had a lot of experience,” and he expects her to be an excellent district judge.

Because she can’t stand to be idle for a second, while Weaver was working for Vaden, she started taking night classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and received a certification in taxation.

“I find tax and estate planning interesting. I don’t have any money, so it’s fun to play with somebody else’s,” she said, laughing.

Weaver has also served as a judge in Vilonia City Court and sat in as a special judge in Damascus when one was needed.

When the courts reorganized to create two full-time district-judge positions to serve Faulkner and Van Buren counties, Weaver thought it was a perfect time to run.

“I prayed about it, too. I don’t usually talk about my religious side because I’m not perfect, and I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite,” she said.

Weaver said her philosophy is, “don’t complain if you’re not trying to fix it.”

“I saw a need for educated and experienced judges. When the public thinks of a judge, they think of someone who has actually practiced law. Every good coach has played the game,” she said.

“I’ve done everything, from the moment the call came in to 911, to being at the prosecutor’s office that files charges to the defense attorney and even worked for the Court of Appeals.”

The district judges are state employees, she said, and a lot of unanswered questions remain about where her office and Reynolds’ office will be located.

Weaver said she and Reynolds will probably equally divide the criminal and civil cases.

Court is held in seven cities in the two counties, and for the first time, Weaver will put on a robe.

“In Vilonia, I don’t know why I didn’t wear a robe,” she said, adding that the late District Judge Jack Roberts did. “I was just pretty comfortable sitting up there in my suit.”

Weaver said she wants to hold court in the small towns.

“I want these folks who voted for me to see me. I’m from a small town, and I have a lot of respect for these rural areas. I think a lot of times they’re overlooked. Van Buren County showed a small area can make a big difference. I have those rural Arkansas values, I guess you could say,” she said.

Asked to define those values, Weaver said, “One is loyalty. I think loyalty is huge, and so often you don’t see it in politics. Values of friends and family and some good Southern cooking,” she said, laughing.

She uses her cooking skills as a volunteer for Help for Abuse Victims in Emergency Need, a Conway shelter for abused and neglected girls. Weaver said she makes a homemade meal for the girls at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“A couple of girlfriends come to my house, and we spend hours, and I mean hours, peeling 15-20 pounds of potatoes, making homemade macaroni and cheese, dressing. Everything revolves around food and fellowship; that’s the most important part of the holidays,” she said.

Weaver has been a member of the Faulkner County Boys and Girls Club Board for years, and she’s on the executive council of the Young Lawyers Section of the Arkansas Bar Association.

She’ll start winding down her private law practice in a few months to start her new job in January.

“I’m just so happy to be where I am,” she said. “If I can be remembered for anything, I just want to be remembered for being good at what I did - being successful, and good.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

up close

getting to know Susan Weaver

My family includes: Parents, Ferrell and Mary Kaye Weaver of Clinton; sister, LeAnn Livingston of Conway; three dogs, Mr. Bartley, Elizabeth Taylor and Bailiff; and two horses

If I weren’t a lawyer/judge: I’d own a restaurant.

My favorite meal to cook: Mexican chicken and fried okra. Fried okra’s good with anything.

Something people would be surprised to know about me is: That I love to cook, or what I read. Right now, I’m reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The last books I have read are To Kill A Mockingbird, which I re-read; Heaven is for Real and Fearless.

River Valley Ozark, Pages 140 on 06/17/2012

Print Headline: Susan Weaver

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