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Respected D.C. judge points out ties to Jesse Sr.

Robert L. Wilkins during his confirmatihearing before Senate Judiciary Committee.  July 28 2010.  PhoCourtesy Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL

Robert L. Wilkins during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. July 28, 2010. Photo Courtesy, Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:32AM



When U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins supported the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign for president, he likely never imagined he might one day send the reverend’s namesake son to prison.

Now 25 years later, that might be a very real possibility.

On Wednesday, Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, pleaded guilty before Wilkins in federal court in Washington, D.C., to illegally spending campaign money.

Wilkins, in a court filing, offered to recuse himself because in 1988, when he was a student at Harvard Law School, he co-chaired a committee to elect the elder Jackson president. As a law student, Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson at a campaign event for another candidate. Years later, he appeared on a CNN talk show hosted by Rev. Jackson to discuss a civil rights lawsuit that Wilkins had filed. Wilkins said he did not believe he had a bias in the case, and attorneys in the Jackson case declined to ask for a different judge.

To those who know him, it comes as no surprise that Wilkins, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, disclosed those interactions. Colleagues and friends in D.C. were unanimous in describingWilkins as “fair.”

“He just wants to put everything on the table,” said Angela J. Davis, a professor at American University Washington College of Law. “I’m not surprised by that because he is so very careful about being fair and aboveboard.”

It was likely a similar sentiment that drove Wilkins to become the lead plaintiff in what would become a landmark civil rights lawsuit against Maryland State Police in the early 1990s.

Wilkins, who is black, and his family were returning from a funeral in Chicago in 1992 when they were stopped and searched by Maryland State Police. The class-action lawsuit accused police of racial profiling. The state eventually settled, and its police had to track who they were stopping, said one of the attorneys on the case, Bill Mertens, who said Wilkins was “committed to justice.”

Before his appointment to the bench, Wilkins, a native of Muncie, Ind., who attended the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, worked for the private firm Venable and was instrumental in establishing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open in D.C. in 2015.

Early in his career Wilkins worked for the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. It was there he met Davis, who would later go on to recommend him for the federal bench.

“He was one of the go-to lawyers there because he was so bright, so smart, such a great writer and a great advocate in court,” she said.

But though Wilkins was a longtime public defender, it doesn’t mean he’s soft on defendants that appear before him — that includes Jackson Jr., said Michele Roberts, a D.C. attorney who worked with Wilkins as a public defender.

“No one should expect a soft touch,” she said. “He’s very fair, but he doesn’t have a predilection for being a coddler of people charged with crimes.”

Roberts said Wilkins will be sensitive to Jackson Jr.’s claims that he suffers from bipolar disorder.

“He’s not going to pooh-pooh or dismiss out of hand any legitimate suggestion that there is a mental health issue that can explain Jackson’s conduct,” she said.

But if it’s not a legitimate issue, she warned, his lawyers “better not try it.”



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