When Beth Walker ’87 road-tripped with fellow Hillsdale students to Washington, D.C., one spring break, she had a blast touring the city and getting an insider tour of the U.S. Supreme Court — but she didn’t realize the trip was a “preview” of her future, as she calls it now.
Designed by the same architect, the U.S. Supreme Court courtroom and that of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia resemble each other, Walker said. Since her election in 2016, Walker now takes office in the latter building as a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court.
“Of course, I had no idea what I would do later,” Walker said of her time in D.C. on spring break. (She did, however, know she wanted to go to law school since 7th grade.)
A northern-Ohio native, Walker’s ties to Hillsdale preceded her birth; her parents, John and Ronda Deer, were Hillsdale alumni and have served on the alumni board (John, a Hillsdale football player, graduated in 1958, Ronda in 1960). When scholarships came through, Walker decided to attend her parents’ alma mater.
At Hillsdale, Walker studied political science and English, a double major that forced her to make a decision about what direction she’d take for her career. She opted for politics, but her English training never left her. At Walker’s swearing-in, one of the speakers complimented her legal writing for its exceptional clarity, remembered Elizabeth Spalding ’88, a close friend of Walker.
An ardently-involved student — she was class president, a member of Chi Omega sorority, helped start the student ambassador program, and wrote a weekly column for The Collegian — Walker said her time at Hillsdale helped pave the way for her career, and not just by teaching her how to write and argue.
“I had a lot of leadership opportunities at Hillsdale, and that’s the kind of thing that makes you see yourself as a leader later,” she said.
From Hillsdale, Walker set off to fulfill her seventh-grade dream of going to law school. She attended Ohio State University, where she put her writing skills to use as an editor for the Ohio State Law Journal.
After graduating from OSU in 1990, Walker moved to West Virginia to work for 22 years at Bowles Rice as a labor and employment lawyer. She then worked for several years as an in-house lawyer for the West Virginia United Health System.
In 2008, Walker was talked into running for West Virginia Supreme Court Justice — and lost the partisan election by 0.6 percent. In 2016, she ran again, this time in a nonpartisan election (“I always thought that’s the way judges should be elected,” Walker said). She won by 18 percentage points over the next candidate.
“I went from a very close loss to a very big win, so that was exciting,” she said.
As a justice for more than a year now, Walker has taken advantage of the opportunity to serve the public, and she’s passionate about transparency.
“We really think it’s important for people to learn about what courts do and to see the judges are real people,” she said. Toward that end, Walker is active on Twitter, tweeting everything from her thoughts on legal matters and legal news to her March Madness bracket.
Evident in Walker’s tweets — and her lively conversation — is a mix of steadiness and humor that Spalding said endeared Walker to everyone on Hillsdale’s campus.
“She would lift people up and make them laugh in a good way,” Spalding said, recalling happy times with Walker in the dorm room and the Collegian office. Walker had “the kind of temperament — filled with patience, deliberation, and insight — that one needs to be a great judge” even as an undergraduate, she added.
Director of Career Services Joanna Wisely, a friend of Walker’s parents who’s known Walker since her high school years, agreed that Walker balanced ambition with lightheartedness.
“I would describe her as dedicated and determined and with a great sense of humor,” Wiseley said. “She was the perfect candidate [for supreme court justice].”
Walker is “the exemplar of a first-rate Hillsdale student,” Spalding said, noting that Walker’s love for constitutional law classes and attention to detail in her Collegian work signaled her aptitude for a law career.
“Beth is a Hillsdale graduate through and through and has carried on the best traditions of Hillsdale,” Spalding added.
As she’s carried on Hillsdale’s tradition throughout her career, Walker has brought some Hillsdale with her. She served on the alumni board until she became a justice. Matthew Spalding, Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs and Elizabeth Spalding’s husband, delivered a speech at her swearing-in. And Walker even has hung a copy of Professor of Art Sam Knecht’s painting of the U.S. Constitution’s signing over her desk.
“I have a little bit of Hillsdale in my office,” she said.
There aren’t many Hillsdale alumni in West Virginia, Walker acknowledged. But to her, it’s always a delight to find a fellow Hillsdale grad.
“I love wearing a Hillsdale sweatshirt when I travel, because I always run into all kinds of people,” she laughed. “It’s a lot of fun.”