- Supported professor and critical-race-theorist Derrick Bell at Harvard University in the late 1980s
- Leading opponent of racial profiling
- Was part of a three-judge panel that struck down a Texas law (in 2012) requiring voters to present photo identification at polling stations
- Was appointed by President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2013
Born in 1963 in Muncie, Indiana, Robert Leon Wilkins earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 1986 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1989. In 1988, Wilkins, who is African American, led some 50 fellow student protesters—most of whom were also black—in an illegal 24-hour occupation of a Harvard Law building. The purpose of that action—in which a young Michelle Robinson (later Michelle Obama) was among the participants—was to convey solidarity with Harvard professor Derrick Bell, the critical race theorist who was then demanding that the Law School hire and grant tenure to a number of black and female professors, including, most notably, Regina Austin. The protesters, for their part, also insisted that Bell be named dean of Harvard Law. Said Wilkins at the time:
“Our intention really is to get the law school administration to take specific action to deal with the problem of minority faculty here at Harvard. We’ve had meetings, we’ve had discussions. They [the administrators] always speak in general terms about having a commitment to dealing with the problem, but they have no specific goals or programs or ideals about really solving the minority faculty problem.”
After completing his education, Wilkins clerked for Judge Earl Gilliam of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California in 1989-90. From 1990-2001, he worked with the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia, serving variously as a staff attorney, chief of special litigation, and contract attorney. After his tenure with PDS, Wilkins became a partner at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Venable LLP, where his work included corporate defense/white collar, technology, and commercial litigation.
In the early-morning hours of May 8, 1992, Wilkins — accompanied by three family members with whom he was returning home from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago — was a passenger in a rented Cadillac bearing Virginia license plates when the vehicle became involved in an incident that went on to make national headlines. A state trooper stopped the car for speeding along a section of Interstate 95 in Maryland—a known drug-trafficking corridor which, according to a Maryland State Police (MSP) criminal-intelligence report, was being frequented by large numbers of predominantly black crack-cocaine dealers driving rental cars registered in Virginia, particularly during overnight/early-morning time frames. When the Wilkins family members declined the trooper’s request for permission to search their car, the trooper called for backup to conduct a canine search, which ultimately uncovered no contraband.
In the aftermath of this incident, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in behalf of Wilkins as well as several other black motorists and the NAACP, arguing that racial profiling along the nation’s highways violated the constitutional rights of African Americans. The case, known as Wilkins v. Maryland State Police, set the term “driving while black” into the national vernacular. Wilkins and his fellow plaintiffs ultimately won the case, which the ACLU called a “landmark” decision. Wilkins said that he was “personally gratified by this resolution” to an ordeal that had caused him to feel “the frustration and indignity of being racially profiled.” As part of the settlement, Maryland police were required to subsequently ban the use of “racial profiling” and to maintain records of the racial identities of all drivers involved in traffic stops and vehicle search requests. Moreover, the MSP agreed to pay $50,000 to the four Wilkins family members who had been detained on the day in question, plus another $46,000 to cover their attorney fees.
Emphasizing that his family’s roadside detention in 1992 was a “humiliating and degrading experience,” Wilkins has been on a mission ever since to use the courts to prevent other blacks from going through anything similar. Noting that his ordeal occurred during the same week as the infamous Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, Wilkins recalls: “This was a time when black people all over the United States were asking themselves whether the country was making tangible progress in fighting racial discrimination and whether the country’s vaunted legal system was truly equipped and able to right these wrongs.”
On May 20, 2010, President Barack Obama, acting in part on a recommendation by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, nominated Wilkins to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed Wilkins for this post seven months later.
In August 2012, Wilkins was part of a three-judge panel that struck down a recently passed Texas law that required voters to present photo identification at polling stations. The ruling in that case, known as Texas v. Holder, stated that many poor people (particularly nonwhite minorities) “who possess none of the underlying forms of identification” would “have to bear out-of-pocket costs” in order to obtain acceptable ID, and thus would be effectively disenfranchised.
On June 4, 2013, President Obama nominated Wilkins as well as Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard to fill three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. When their confirmations were subsequently filibustered by Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Harry Reid called for the Senate to lower the number of votes required to break a filibuster (in cases involving judicial and executive nominees), from the traditional 60 to a simple majority. On November 21, Reid’s historic proposal was pushed through the Senate without any Republican support. Under these new rules, the Senate confirmed Wilkins by a 55-to-43 vote on January 13, 2014.
For additional information on Robert Wilkins, click here.
Further Reading: “Robert Leon Wilkins” (FJC.gov); “Sit-In Leader Nominated as Judge by Pres. Obama” (PJ Media, 3-8-2012); “Why ‘Racial Profiling’ Will be Tough to Fight” (by Brent Staples, NY Times, 5-24-1999); “Wilkins v. Maryland State Police” (from “Driving While Black,” by ACLU.org, June 1999); “Obama Nominee Behind ‘Driving While Black’ Case” (TheGrio.com, 6-5-2013); “ACLU, Civil Rights Groups and Maryland Officials Reach Landmark Racial Profiling Settlement” (ACLU.org, 4-2-2003); “The Radical Judges Who Struck Down Texas’ Voter ID Law” (by Matthew Vadum, 8-30-2012); “Judicial Picks Set the Stage for a Battle in the Senate” (NY Times, 6-4-2013).