In the summer of 1990 between the end of his clerkship in California and the start of his job at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., Robert L. Wilkins returned to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana, and knocked on the door of the DeFur Voran law firm.
He was wondering if the law firm had a summer job available. There really weren’t any openings, but partner Scott Shockley remembered he and his colleagues were not about to turn away the young Harvard-educated attorney.
The firm hired Wilkins and kept him busy helping with litigation. Shockley found the new attorney to be “very quiet, very humble” and “incredibly brilliant.”
At the end of the summer, the partners made a sales pitch, trying to convince their co-worker to stay, but Wilkins was determined to become a public defender. Shockley, who once served as a deputy prosecutor in Denver, understood the commitment to public service and admired Wilkins’ dedication to helping others.
Wilkins went on to be appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2010.
In 2014, he was confirmed as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
He will be returning to his home state Feb. 17 to talk about his life story as part of the 17th Annual Black History Month Celebration. The event is sponsored by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana, U.S. Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana, Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, Indiana Federal Community Defenders Inc., and U.S. Marshals Service for the Southern District of Indiana.
Retired 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Tinder encouraged the district court to invite Wilkins for the program. Tinder did not know of Wilkins until the nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court came. He sent a congratulatory email, started a correspondence and was struck by Wilkins’ fascinating story and being what he called a self-made man.
Fairness and the police
Hoosiers who know Wilkins echo Shockley’s description of him as being brilliant, incisive and kind. But when Wilkins speaks of his career path, he talks over and over of the opportunities he has had, the people who helped him along the way, and how grateful he is.
As a public defender, Wilkins saw clients who came from broken families, went to poor schools or had not taken advantage of opportunities to realize their potential. He credited the guidance and nurturing he received at home with keeping him away from such heartbreak, but he knew people who gotten into trouble. His clients were like those people from his youth, and he believes if his situation had been different, he might have ended up like the individuals he was representing.
Still he found the job to be fulfilling. “I loved it,” Wilkins said. “It was my dream job.”
In particular, he liked making sure his clients were treated fairly. He had the resources at his disposal to ensure the defendants got a fair shake from the justice system.
That commitment to fair treatment led Wilkins to be the lead plaintiff in a landmark civil rights case that brought changes nationwide to police stop-and-search practices and mandated the collection of data about those practices.
Wilkins and three of his relatives were pulled over in 1992 by Maryland State Police, who stopped the family largely because they were African-American. He and his family stood along the side of the busy highway while a German shepherd pawed through the car looking for illegal drugs.
That Wilkins had a Harvard law degree, was a practicing attorney and could cite legal precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States did not matter on the side of the road because the officers had all the authority. To him, he said, it seemed as if the system was wearing two left shoes.
He filed Wilkins, et al. v. State of Maryland because he wanted the police to be held accountable so the system could have integrity. It was a years-long effort that resulted in law enforcement being required to keep records of all highway drug and weapons searches, including the race of the motorist, the reason for the stop and the outcome.
Tinder pointed to Wilkins’ reaction to a police stop as an extension of his public-service work. His interest in changing police practices was to benefit the larger population and prevent others from being pulled over because of their race, Tinder said.
Sandwich maker to judge
As a student at the former Muncie Northside High School, Wilkins planned to attend college but he was unsure what he wanted to become. The manager at the local Rax Restaurant where Wilkins made roast beef sandwiches, cooked french fries and filled orders at the drive-through suggested he study engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Following the advice, he became a chemical engineering major. However, during his time as an undergraduate, Wilkins was drawn to civil rights and social justice issues. He had had no interest in being a lawyer as a teenager, but as his interests changed, studying the law seemed like a natural step.
He earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School and after graduation in 1989 served as a law clerk to Judge Earl Gilliam of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. Then he went on to work as a public defender and in 2002 became a partner at Venable LLP.
On the district court bench, Wilkins dealt with some high-profile cases. He allowed the whistleblower lawsuit against cyclist Lance Armstrong to proceed, and he handled some initial hearings involving former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who ended up pleading guilty to wire and mail fraud related to his misuse of campaign funds.
Josh Minkler, Wilkins’ high school friend who’s now U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, is not surprised by Wilkins’ achievements. Minkler and Wilkins were on the track and cross country teams and in the same debate class.
Wilkins was not the best runner, Minkler said, but in the classroom he was very bright. By his junior year, he was taking senior-level classes and had a reputation as a “math and science whiz.” Outside the classroom, Wilkins was funny and friendly with everyone.
“I think everybody that knew him in high school knew he was destined for great things,” Minkler said.
Hard work and history
Wilkins compared his work on the D.C. Circuit as similar to studying for a final exam, except now he has to do that before every oral argument. The court handles disputes over complicated statutes, regulatory schemes, and technology, which requires him to devote hours to preparing for cases and writing opinions.
He is pretty much in his chambers at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse every day. And when he finishes with court work, he takes out the manuscript he is writing about the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
The effort to establish the museum began about 100 years ago. Legislation that would allow the idea to become bricks and mortar failed in Congress nearly 15 times. Wilkins became involved with the project in the mid-1990s, eventually serving as chair of the Site and Building Committee of the Presidential Commission, and he is credited with helping to get Public Law 107-106 passed that opened the way for the groundbreaking.
Wilkins described the museum, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016, as his passion. He said researching and learning about the people who came before who shared his passion in establishing the museum has been rewarding. Reflecting his interest in social justice issues, he wanted to be a part of helping to create an institution that, he said, can educate people about where we came from and where we need to go to be a better country.
Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, clearly sees Wilkins’ commitment to fairness and justice in his work on the project. The museum underscores the judge’s “notion of making sure people remember the past, understand the dark moments, and understand the resiliency that helped America,” Bunch said.
Since he left DeFur Voran, Wilkins has continued his friendship with Shockley. In fact, Shockley was in the audience when Wilkins was sworn in to the D.C. Circuit. He also plans to be in the audience when Wilkins returns for the Black History Month program.
“Apart from all his accomplishments and qualifications, he’s just a wonderful guy, as evidenced by the fact he remembers us here (in Indiana),” Shockley said.•