African-American federal judge Robert L. Wilkins has been nominated to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit regarded as one of the most important federal appellate courts in the nation and a stepping stone to the Supreme Court.
President Obama on June 4 nominated Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., along with female lawyers Patricia A. Millett, a partner at the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who has litigated frequently before the Supreme Court; and Cornelia T.L. Pillard, a tenured law professor at Georgetown University, who previously worked at both the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in the solicitor general’s office.
The choices, many experts said, reflect the president’s commitment to diversity and to the fair and equitable application of the law.
“These nominations reflect the kind of president he has been and who he wants to be,” said Orlan Johnson, an adjunct professor of law at Howard University School of Law and a former presidential appointee in the Obama administration.
“These three individuals are highly qualified to serve on the D.C. Circuit,” the president said during the formal ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
“They have broad bipartisan support from across the legal community…. These are no slouches. These are no hacks. They are incredibly accomplished lawyers by all accounts.”
Born in Muncie, Ind., Wilkins received his juris doctorate from Harvard Law School, where he was the executive editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. In 1990, he joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., then in 2002 he began practicing as a partner with Venable LLP, specializing in white-collar defense, intellectual property and complex civil litigation. In 2010, Wilkins was successfully confirmed to the U.S. District Court by unanimous consent.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who recommended Wilkins in 2010 and now, said Wilkins’ range of legal experience and his reputation for integrity makes him an excellent choice for the Circuit Court.
“We are especially pleased that President Obama has once again recognized his unique abilities and character and has nominated him for the D.C. Circuit Court,” said Norton in a statement. “His strong reputation among his peers in the profession, especially for a young man, is universally high [and] the Senate would do the nation a great service by confirming Judge Robert Wilkins.”
During his tenure as a public defender, Wilkins served as the main plaintiff in a racial profiling suit against the Maryland State Police. The resulting settlements were the first to require police agencies to systematically compile and publish data for all highway drug and weapons searches, including data regarding the race of the motorist involved, the justification for the search and the outcome of the search. These settlements inspired a June 1999 Executive Order by President Clinton, Congressional hearings and legislation that has been enacted in over half of the 50 states.
Wilkins was also instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian, which is scheduled to open in 2015 on the National Mall.
Civil rights groups and several legal associations praised Obama’s choice.
"Judge Wilkins is a respected appellate jurist, celebrated litigator, effective community mobilizer and groundbreaking civil rights leader," said National Bar Association President John Page in a statement. "The DC Circuit Court holds enormous influence over the federal policies that impact every aspect of our lives [and would] benefit from Judge Wilkins' diverse life experiences and commitment to excellence."
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, added her praises.
“With all three nominees, President Obama has advanced both diversity and excellence on this important court,” she stated. “We look forward to their swift confirmation by the Senate.”
But confirmation of these Wilkins and the other candidates could be anything but swift, many political observers said.
In 2010, Obama’s nominee for the appeals court, Caitlin Halligan—whose “credentials were beyond question”—was allowed to “languish in limbo” for two-and-a-half years, the president said, until she asked for her name to be withdrawn. Likewise, most of his nominees have waited three times longer to receive confirmation votes than President Bush’s, he added.
“This group of Republicans have made it clear that their partisan politics is more important than the interests of the nation,” said Larry Gibson, author and professor or law at University of Maryland School of Law. “They seem to want to play politics with everything and will probably do it with this. “But they can’t oppose this man (Wilkins) based on merit especially since they just unanimously confirmed his nomination in 2010 to a lifetime appointment as a District judge.”
Gibson continued to say that if Obama is “for” something, Republicans will likely be “against,” even if it something they previously proposed. For example, several Republicans have questioned the need for 11 jurists on the court—even though they approved the number of seats in 2007.
“Today’s nominations are nothing more than a political ploy to advance a partisan agenda,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in a statement. .
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued that theme, saying the court’s caseload was too light to justify more judges.
“It’s hard to imagine the rationale for nominating three judges at once for this court given the many vacant emergency seats across the country, unless your goal is to pack the court to advance a certain policy agenda,” he said in a statement.
But experts said the president is just doing his job.
“The D.C. Circuit is the most important federal appeals court in the country. It has special jurisdiction for reviewing the actions of federal agencies. Filling the vacancies on this important court is critical for effective functioning of our justice system,” said Ifill, of the Legal Defense Fund.
Looking visibly incensed Tuesday, President Obama said Republican criticism was “not about principled opposition” but about “political obstruction,” and warned them to stop playing “games.”
“Right now, there are three open seats on a critical court. I didn’t create these seats. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s add three seats to the District Court of Appeals. These are open seats. And the Constitution demands that I nominate qualified individuals to fill those seats,” Obama said. “What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”