WUFT by Angela DiMichele, Photos by Chris Day
December 12, 2019
Tallahassee, Fla. — Barbara Petersen never felt her path in life was defined. She had to whittle the force she would become.
She had pursued the arts early on despite her father’s objections; she was too smart to be an artist, he argued. But her stubbornness prevailed. She didn’t want to grind away at a 9-to-5 job and left college with a mosaic of degrees: pottery, weaving, anthropology, Spanish.
She was a good potter, but at 37, Petersen pivoted. She announced she would take the LSAT and enroll in law school.
“What in the world is wrong with you?” asked her husband, the award-winning author and journalist Bob Shacochis. “Why the hell do you want to go to law school?”
Petersen knew exactly why, though she never had any intention of becoming a lawyer.
She wanted the kind of philosophical education law school provided. She wanted to be able to think like a legal expert; sieve through a document to find every truth and every lie and question each word and its meaning.
Three years later, she graduated from Florida State University, though the thought of taking the Bar exam led her into a frenzy of breaking dishes one morning. Shacochis bought a plane ticket to Argentina and didn’t return to the couple’s home until Petersen had sat for the exam.
She passed the Bar. And with the highest possible score. Still, Petersen has only set foot in a courtroom once. She was never interested in defending anyone before a judge or jury. She wanted to become a defender of the law itself.
And she did, rising to become one of the nation’s top protectors of open government and a staunch advocate of First Amendment rights in Florida.
“I have found such a passion, and it is such an important issue that I firmly believe in and it really did change my life,” she says.