Wanda Dallas takes the oath of office administered by Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Deborah Benefield. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — Atiyah Warthen said she will never forget the day her mother learned she passed the bar.
“She opened this letter and started crying,” she said. “She told me she’d passed the bar. I thought, ‘Wow, what’s a bar?’”
Warthen was just 9 that day almost 20 years ago when her mother, Wanda Dallas, got the news she’d worked hard so achieve. Warthen gathered with her siblings, other relatives, friends and Dallas’ colleagues Friday to watch her mother take the oath of office in another step in her career.
Dallas was appointed the chief magistrate of Clayton County, replacing Daphne Walker, who held the office since 2005. Walker left the seat in September to take over leadership of a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence.
Another daughter, Qiturah Simpson, recounted her mother’s background and history. Born in Springfield, Mass., Dallas moved to Georgia to attend college and met her husband here. They had three children before moving to Tulsa, Okla., so Dallas could attend law school.
The Friday before starting Monday classes, Dallas learned she was pregnant a fourth time. Dallas recalled that first day with trepidation.
“You know that first day when the dean tells you to look to your left and right and that one of the two won’t make it?” she said. The roomful of mostly attorneys laughed and nodded knowingly. “I just pointed to me. ‘It’s me, I’m the one who isn’t going to make it. Don’t look anywhere else.’”
The courage to remain in school and maintain the grueling schedule of a law student while also managing a household with children has remained with her, Simpson said.
“She is one of the most fearless women I know,” she said. “She tells us that nothing is impossible. Even if it seems impossible, find another way to get it done because nothing is impossible.”
Clayton County Superior Court Chief Judge Deborah Benefield said Dallas has what it takes to be a chief magistrate judge because it takes courage.
“It takes courage to make the right decision,” she said. “To treat all as though they are worthy of respect and dignity. It takes courage to care when no one else does and when others think you should not.”
Benefield and the three other Superior Court judges interviewed applicants and made the decision to appoint Dallas. She said the decision was tough.
“It was a difficult decision because we had the best and brightest apply,” she said. “But her reputation, as they say, preceded her. We received unsolicited references from every level of Fulton County government and even folks in Clayton County were ready to recommend her.”
Benefield said the panel “wanted to get it right.”
“We wanted to be sure,” she said. “We wanted to get it right. She was and is the right choice.”
Benefield administered the oath and Dallas thanked officials for the opportunity to serve. Dallas also recalled for the group, consisting of her former Fulton County co-workers, her new Clayton County colleagues and other elected or appointed officials, the day she knew she’d be a lawyer.
“I loved reading,” she said. “I spent most of my childhood in the library. Books were a different reality for me. Home was challenging but the library was my escape.”
One day, when she was 11, she talked her childhood friend into sneaking into the library of a nearby college. She was mesmerized.
“I saw all these books, legal books and the Constitution,” Dallas said. “That was the day I realized I’d go to law school.”
Dallas vowed to make the Clayton Magistrate Court a model for other courts.
“That is my goal and mission,” she said. “I want to put us on the map. I want to unite the courthouse. I will represent the citizens with honor and integrity and give the best I have on a daily basis.”