“It really felt amazing,” she said. “I’m just so lucky and so blessed.”
Whitner completed her undergraduate and law degrees at Howard University.
“I was too lazy to move my stuff,” she joked.
But a law career was not a certainty, Whitner said. She was more fascinated with politics. She was a student council member all four years of high school, then volunteered in student government and interned for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, Sr. while at Howard.
Wanting to take a less traditional route than joining a law firm, Whitner, 49, spent the next 10 years as an attorney for the Air Force and National Guard.
She was a prosecutor in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida, then changed tracks and became a public defender after moving to Savannah in 2005.That change, Whitner said, allowed her to see the law differently and be more compassionate.
Yet compassion and attentiveness are qualities those around her said they have always seen. Judge Robert Waller remembered his first time seeing Whitner in the courtroom, soothing an uneasy client.
“She stopped, put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, ‘I got this. I went to law school,’” Waller said. “It was like she was a whisperer.”
The woman, who was fighting to regain custody of her children, was reunited with them soon after.
Part of the judicial oath requires judges to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.”
It’s a promise Whitner takes seriously: “One of the things a judge is supposed to do is cast aside their biases. I want people to know that when they come before me, they’ll get a fair chance. They’ll have their day in court.”
`I’m a real Gwinnett fan’
Whitner’s mother, Nadra Hannah, said her child has always been extremely focused. She grew up in a military family and, despite moving around a lot, made friends easily and was quite adventurous. Whitner laughed with her mother, as she had described herself the same way a few minutes earlier.
“We didn’t even rehearse that,” Whitner said.
Whitner ran her own law firm from 2009 until she became a Gwinnett County Juvenile Court judge in 2016.
“She’s a good person, and she really cares about people, and that’s what’s going to make her a good (Superior Court) judge,” said Sharon Hubbard, one of Whitner’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters.
Whitner’s swearing-in ceremony was held at the State Capitol. It was a packed house, so much so that Waller had to watch from the balcony with binoculars.
“I’m absolutely delighted for her…I think she could do most anything in the legal profession,” Waller said.
Whitner’s 15-year-old son Zander Kelly said he wants to join the Air Force like his mom. Zander said: “I knew she could do it, but at the same time I’m still so proud of her.”
Whitner will soon begin the campaign to keep her seat. The unexpired term she has been appointed to fill expires in 2020.
Whitner said she has a host of ideas for reaching out to the community: fish fries, church gatherings and “Tea with T,” a series of casual gatherings with residents to discuss their concerns over a cup of brew.
And Whitner said she is hopeful that her community involvement will build trust. She said she is active with United Way of Greater Atlanta, Boy Scouts of America, New Mercies church and service partnerships with black sororities and fraternities.
Whitner has lived in 10 different states, but has resided in Gwinnett County the longest — since 2009.
“My children go to school here, I own a home here,” Whitner said. “I really love this county, like I’m a real Gwinnett fan.”