US judge’s journey to bench started in Muncie
MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Dozens of men and women shook his hand, exchanged hugs or posed for pictures with Robert Wilkins after his speech Thursday afternoon in the Cornerstone Center for the Arts Colonnade Room.
Wilkins smiled throughout as he caught up with old friends. One person after another walked up to him and said, “I’m so proud of you” or “It’s an honor to meet you.” Wilkins humbly responded, “Thank you” a countless number of times and posed for his final picture about 45 minutes after delivering an uplifting speech at the 22nd annual Muncie Black Expo Luncheon.
“It is overwhelming,” said Wilkins, a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The 1982 Northside High School graduate shared his remarkable journey from a self-described “scraggly” kid who earned his first paycheck at a Rax Roast Beef restaurant to his current position on the United States Court of Appeals.
He credited his mother, Joyce Wilkins, first and foremost for his success.
“There’s not really anything I could say to do justice to my mother,” he told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1nKx7Ux ). “She made so many sacrifices along the way and did so many things to give me opportunities.”
Wilkins recalled his mother insisting he find a job and Rax hiring him at the age of 14 or 15.
“I think I could barely see over the counter,” he said as the crowd of 360 responded in laughter.
His employment at Rax paved his path to prestigious Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He said Rax managers suggested Wilkins major in engineering at Rose-Hulman.
Wilkins followed their advice and studied chemical engineering, but by his senior year, his interest in engineering waned and he decided to pursue law.
Indiana University and Northwestern stood out as two possibilities in the Midwest, but Wilkins applied to other prominent law schools.
“The advice I was given back then was apply to a few schools that you’re pretty confident you can get into, but apply to some schools that would be kind of your dream schools because you never know what might happen,” he said.
Harvard fell in the dream-school category, but Wilkins nearly passed on typing out its application. He said he held the application over a trash can when, “Something said, ‘Oh, come on,’ and I jerked my hand back and I typed up the application, and I was as surprised as anyone when I was admitted.”
Baron Gemmer, a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brother who graduated from Rose-Hulman a year earlier, paid for the financially-strapped Wilkins to visit Harvard for orientation.
“He lived near Philadelphia and said, ‘Pack your stuff. I’ll drive you to Philadelphia, get you a train ticket from Philadelphia to Boston, and I’ll get you a plane ticket back to Indianapolis.’”
Wilkins said that visit swayed him to choose Harvard over IU or Northwestern. He earned his Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1989, and 25 years later, he is on the Court of Appeals, which ranks second only to the Supreme Court in its influence.
One moment that stood out to Wilkins as he reflected on the past 25 years occurred in 1992, when the Maryland State Police pulled over a vehicle, occupied by him and three other family members, for speeding.
Wilkins told the luncheon crowd that the police officer insisted on searching the vehicle for drugs. Wilkins and his passengers refused to consent to the search, and the situation soon escalated.
“He made us wait for a drug-sniffing dog he brought to the scene, even though he was aware I was a public defender,” Wilkins said. “I told him the name of the Supreme Court case that said he shouldn’t be doing what he was doing and none of that mattered.
“No drugs were found and we were let go, but just the indignity of all of it was a little too much to bear.”
Wilkins filed a lawsuit and won a landmark settlement against the state of Maryland. The lawsuit exposed that the Maryland State Police targeted black drivers. Wilkins negotiated in the settlement for the police to collect data on whom they stop and search. Maryland broke ground as the first state police to collect that type of data, a practice now implemented by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
The police stop and proceeding settlement motivated Wilkins to stop practicing law in August of 2000 to focus on establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Wilkins said The Smithsonian Museum is scheduled to open in late 2015 or early 2016.
He complimented his wife, seven months pregnant at the time, for letting him resign.
“I convinced her with, arguably I guess, the best closing argument I’ve ever given to let me quit my job,” he said.
Wilkins resumed practicing in 2002 as a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Venable LLP. In 2010, President Barack Obama nominated him to a judgeship on the District Court for the District of Columbia. Obama then nominated him last year for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The U.S. Senate approved Wilkins each time.
So is the Supreme Court next for the Muncie native?
“That’s not something I even think about,” Wilkins said. “I feel honored to be where I am and just try to do my job well.”
A capacity crowd filled the Colonnade Room to listen to Wilkins share his journey. Muncie Black Expo President WaTasha Griffin said the organization sold every ticket for the luncheon and she had to turn a few people away.
Griffin said Wilkins is an ideal role model for Muncie youth.
“We have it recorded and we’ll show it to some of our youth,” Griffin said, “just to show that in Muncie you can be successful with a support system, with education, you can be whatever you want to be.”
Gov. Mike Pence sent a representative to honor Wilkins with a Distinguished Hoosier Award. State Rep. Sue Errington presented Wilkins with an award, too.
The Muncie Black Expo honored detective Robert Scaife with the Beatrice Moten-Foster President’s Award for his service to the community and Vivian Harrington with the Volunteer Citizen Award.
Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com