The Dignity of a Person and the Fairness of the Law By Samantha Wagner This article appeared originally in the Fall 2020 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
Judge Jacquelyn Irby Duckett ’87 has an enthusiasm for her job that rings in her voice and animates her conversation. As the Associate Chief Magistrate of Greenville County, that enthusiasm is contagious – inspiring others to listen to her words and dwell on the importance of due process in the 21st century. Her interest in the legal system, however, predates her current career and even college experiences. “I knew I wanted to work in the judicial system as a little girl,” Judge Duckett says. “I loved watching crime dramas and learning about the criminal justice system. By the time I was a senior in high school at J.L. Mann, I knew that criminal justice was going to be my major.”
Her focus at such a young age was incredible and inspired by her mother’s belief that college could bring endless opportunities. “She was the one who suggested that I enroll at Spartanburg Methodist College, complete my two-year associate degree, and then transfer to another school for my bachelor’s degree,” Duckett explains. “She knew that a college education would provide more security and better job opportunities for my life.” In agreement with her mother, Duckett enrolled in the fall of 1985 and quickly fell in love with the family atmosphere of the College and the rigor of her criminal justice courses.
“College was the experience of a lifetime,” Duckett says. “I spent those two years focused on self-improvement both personally and academically.” She immersed herself in her classes – soaking up the information with zeal. Her professors were fascinating and focused on applying theory to the real world. While her classes were her primary focus, Duckett also found time to participate in student life. She was involved in various extracurricular activities, including student government and intramurals. She was even the Homecoming Queen for the 1987 class.
Her memories of SMC are happy ones, and she remembers the College’s campus as a second home full of advancement. “My time at SMC was a time of maturation and growth,” She says. “College was and is preparation for life. I learned as a young woman that hard work, dedication, and education were the keys to success.” Her hard work and focus paid off when, at the age of 19, she graduated SMC as a dean’s list student with her associate degree in criminal justice and began a career as a court-clerk in the Greenville Municipal Court system.
For the next 28 years, Jacquie served as a City of Greenville Deputy Clerk and Court Clerk Coordinator as the senior clerk of court operations. She learned everything she could about the South Carolina judicial system through real-life experiences in her occupation. While balancing her personal and professional life, she completed her Bachelor of Arts from Colorado Tech University and graduated cum laude. Her years of hard work, determination, and study were rewarded when, at 47, she retired from her position as a court clerk and was appointed as a Magistrate Judge by Senator Karl B. Allen and Governor Nikki Hayley.
“Those 28 years prepared me to be the magistrate judge I am today,” she states. “Because of my experience as a clerk, I had a strong familiarity with the processes and procedures of the Greenville courts and the differences between criminal and civil law. One might even say I was overqualified after so long!”
She loves her job as a judge and appreciates that every day, every case and every person’s experiences are different.
Each person has a different background and a different story. As a judge, she gives dignity to those experiences while maintaining the law’s impartiality and fairness. “I pursued a career in criminal justice because I loved being able to help others,” she states. “I have a responsibility to enact the law, but I also have a unique chance to engage and sometimes connect with others when they are at their worst.”
Judge Duckett is busier now than ever before as she and her colleagues work to process the backlog of court cases paused during the COVID-19 pandemic. While her office remained open to the public for legal emergencies, restrictions on social gatherings made holding court difficult. Still, she is incredibly thankful for the humility the pandemic has brought. “COVID-19 was unexpected, but it made me thankful for the job I have and the blessings I have,” she says. “We see many hard things in the courts – both criminal and civil. You have to have faith in this line of work that things will get better. Choosing to look at each day with hope helps me keep going even when facing the hardest things.”
While her legal expertise and life experience combine to make one incredible judge, it is her desire to serve the people of Greenville and her resilient hope for tomorrow that make her an incredible woman.