Penny Willrich learned from the best as she grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement in Grant Prairie, Texas.
The Gilbert 53-year-old’s parents were involved in the movement to desegregate public schools and to fight for equality.
She remembers her parents pointing out on the television and educating her about her heroes, who include Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins, a prominent civil rights activist from the 1930s to the 1970s active in the NAACP.
So she was especially thrilled when in April she was awarded Maricopa County’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Roy Wilkins Image Award.
“I immediately called my mom, who is my chief adviser,” Willrich said. “It’s a great honor for me. I admire Wilkins’ way of peacefully being a catalyst for change.”
Willrich, Arizona’s first African American female Superior Court judge, received the award for her service to the community and helping others.
Willrich always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She was destined for a life of law after visiting court at least once a week in high school, thanks to an influential civics teacher who was retiring to go to law school and later became a Texas judge.
Willrich moved to the Valley in 1987 after she was recruited for Community Legal Services in Glendale, a nonprofit law firm that represents people who can’t afford an attorney. She then became assistant director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security over the division of children, youth and families.
After trying her hand in private practice, she was appointed as a Superior Court commissioner. Then in 1999, she was appointed a Superior Court judge.
“It was eye-opening and educational, and a very humbling experience to see the hard work people do for their clients and have the responsibility to make decisions that will affect people’s lives,” she said. “It was an honor to hold that position in the juvenile, criminal and family courts.”
Her work in the juvenile court made her a better parent, and taught her to look at things differently, she said.
“I saw cases that ranged from the comical to horrible,” said Willrich, whose 20-year-old daughter, Amaya Wesley, is a graduate of Gilbert’s Mesquite High School and a University of Arizona senior. “It’s painful, but a place where court can really make a difference.”
Willrich decided to retire from the bench after starting a doctorate program in criminology and falling in love with teaching at a new Valley law school. She is now an associate professor of law at Phoenix School of Law.
“I love to write and research. I’ve always been a risk taker and always done what I’ve loved,” said Willrich, who is about a year away from her doctorate.
Willrich also helped form the Arizona Youth Innocence Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan law center developed to ensure disadvantaged juveniles, especially minorities, have adequate representation in court.
Willrich’s best friend, Pam Smith, is also the executive director of the Youth Innocence Project and in the same doctorate program.
“I think the most important thing is she understands what the issues are and how they correlate to each other contextually,” said Smith, who lives in Gilbert. “She’s dedicated her entire life to either defend or assist the under-served.”