By Dan Hoover STAFF WRITER
April 5, 2008
His eloquent summations have packed courtrooms, he’s been hailed as a judicial innovator and his quiet work has reshaped federal jurisprudence in America.
For a lifetime of “extraordinary” contributions, Judge William W. Wilkins of Greenville received a special achievement award Friday from the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section at its spring meeting in Charleston.
Wilkins, 66, is on senior status as a judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, having stepped down last year as its chief judge.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but particularly by your peers,” Wilkins said before the presentation. “That makes it special.”
To Stephen Saltzburg, chairman of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section and a George Washington University law professor, Wilkins “represents the best in American justice (with a) demonstrated awareness of commitment to the important role that an independent bar and independent judiciary in assuring…equal justice under the law.”
Wilkins’ influence on the law and how it functions has been national in scope.
As the first chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, he has been credited with bringing uniformity to federal criminal sentencing while limiting judges’ discretion, something that chafed many of his peers.
“Judge Wilkins wasn’t at fault,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, but “did what Congress wanted in a realistic way.”
“It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the sentencing guidelines,” said William Traxler of Greenville, a 4th U.S. Circuit judge who has known Wilkins for years. “It was novel for the federal system and extremely effective.”
Talk to those who know “Billy” Wilkins and what comes across is a guy who mingles Old South courtliness with a cutting edge legal mind, decidedly not a stuffy, hidebound, ivory tower judge, but one who can cut to the chase with pleasant incisiveness that leaves litigants and lawyers satisfied with a fair hearing.
WAITING ON LINE
It goes back a ways.
In the days before Court TV, a Wilkins closing argument could pack a courtroom.
“He’s probably the best trial lawyer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot,” said Traxler, recalling his years as an assistant solicitor under Wilkins.
“He was so good that people would want to get copies of closing arguments from the court reporter. I can remember some cases we tried where people would bring their lunch so they wouldn’t lose their seat at lunchtime,” he said.
Traxler spoke of Wilkins, both as prosecutor and judge, as “calm, courteous, but still able to make his points, understand what they were trying to say and pinpoint the issues.”
The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, for whom Wilkins once worked, described Wilkins as “a man of character and unquestionable integrity.” Thurmond backed it up by sending his name to the White House for Supreme Court vacancies and, in 1987, for director of the FBI when William Webster left to head the CIA.
Published reports identified Wilkins as the Reagan administration’s top choice, but he withdrew his name from consideration as the process dragged on. Last year, he was among those recommended to replace U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
More recently, some have tried to convince Wilkins to make a run for governor in 2010, but to no avail. He said last month that his future holds some more time on the bench, followed by teaching and another crack at private practice. But his brother, David, a lawyer, former state House speaker and current U.S. ambassador to Canada, hasn’t been ruled out.
Wilkins has been described by fellow 4th U.S. Circuit Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr. as “always well prepared, always current in his work, highly intelligent, quick to master newly encountered law, and equally quick to master the critical facts of a case.”
His courtliness showed through, even in the rough-and-tumble, rapid-fire questioning of opposing lawyers that marks appellate court hearings.
Phillips noted that Wilkins is “always civil in his relationships with colleagues, courteous and respectful to members of the Bar, tough-minded in defending positions taken, but personally secure enough to change his mind when convinced of their error.”
“He doesn’t have what lawyers like to call ‘robeitis,'” observed Greenville’s John Kittredge, a state Court of Appeals judge who first came to know Wilkins as a teenager working in his first campaign for solicitor.
“He’s a warm, engaging person who’s interested in you, and not as a pretext for talking about himself,” Kittredge says.
That absence of an egocentric personality has made Wilkins a “good listener,” Kittredge said, one who has quietly helped numerous people work through problems over the years.
Columbia lawyer William C. Hubbard, has known Wilkins for three decades, trying his first case before him.
“He is a giant of the American judiciary, both for his work on the bench and his leadership in improving our system of justice,” Hubbard said. In August, Hubbard will become chairman of the ABA’s House of Delegates, the number two post in the 413,000-member association.
Before he donned the black robe of a judge, Wilkins was a gang-busting solicitor, or district attorney to South Carolina newcomers.
THE GANG BUSTER
Mike Bridges, a future Greenville police chief then a sergeant, recalls 1970s Greenville when sex shops, massage parlors and gambling were part of a “wide-open” Greenville. How wide open? Well, you could walk out the City Hall door, cross Main Street and find a massage parlor.
Then, there was the murderous Dawson Gang, headquartered here. And the Greenville Police Department burglary ring. Cops on the pad.
“Billy became somebody we could go to,” Bridges said, referring to local law enforcement officers anxious to clean things up and purge their ranks of bad apples. “He stood up.”
The result was Wilkins’ formation of the nation’s first multi-agency task force that brought together city, county, state and federal agencies acting in concert.
Pulling it all together was Wilkins, Bridges said, describing a “hands on,” but never overbearing style, always quick to adapt to new or changing circumstances. “Smooth, I never saw him rattled.”
Ask Wilkins about the totality of his career and it’s not the landmark Sentencing Commission or majority opinions on lofty matters before the 4th Circuit that he mentions. It’s those Wild West days right back in Greenville and his innovative task force.
“We sort of had to do it in disguise,” Wilkins said, because of eavesdropping corrupt cops. He would prosecute more than a dozen as solicitor, including one for murder.
They’d meet at least one a week in a vacant Federal Building grand jury room that now, ironically, is part of his office.
“We listed 21 individuals, desperadoes, on the board, and started with 21.
“If they spit on the street, we were on top of them,” Wilkins said.
Like peeling an onion, lesser criminal lights were indicted, then flipped into snitching on the top dogs, he explained, compressing years of intense work into little more than a sentence.
“Back then, it was moving from the old way to the new way, so we were kind of on the edge there with law enforcement.”
Wilkins embraced the new, from the task force to pushing for the state’s first local crime lab to the less visible victim/witness assistance program.
Other Wilkins’ firsts locally included the Pre-Trial Diversion Program, giving young nonviolent offenders a path to avoiding a permanent criminal record, and the Child Abuse Prosecution Unit.
At the federal level, he chaired the groundbreaking Sentencing Commission and in 1999, then U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed him chairman of the Committee on Criminal Law for the federal judiciary.
Ever evolving, Wilkins raised questions about the death penalty in a May 2007 article in the University of Richmond Law Review, not as an abolition advocate but as a reminder of the financial burden it imposes on local and state governments:
“These costs are, in a word, staggering. Is it too much? Could this money be spent to better purpose-toward education, toward
programs like Head Start, toward a state’s share of Medicaid costs, or reducing property taxes? I’m not saying that it is too
much, but it is a legitimate question to ask.”
Dan Hoover covers politics and can be reached at 298-4883.