Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How Jesse Jr.’s Judge Met Rev. Jesse Jackson

Long before he presided over the trial of Sandi and Jesse Jackson Jr., Judge Robert L. Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson at a Harvard Law event, and talked racial profiling on CNN’s ‘Both Sides With Jesse Jackson.’

U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins revealed in court this morning that he had prior contact with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He offered to recuse himself. Neither the defense nor prosecution took him up on the offer, so the judge, who has been on the bench since 2010, will remain on the case: Jesse Jr. will be sentenced by Judge Wilkins on June 28, and Sandi Jackson on July 1.

Here’s what some quick research reveals about the Muncie, Indiana-born Wilkins—a founder of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—who came to the bench from a partnership at the D.C. firm Venable LLP, where he specialized in litigation/white collar defense. 

Wilkins graduated from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 1986 with a degree in chemical engineering, and from Harvard Law School in 1989. Claiming no bias for or against the Jacksons, he revealed that he’d crossed paths with the Reverend in school: “In 1988, while a law student, Judge Wilkins served as a co-chair of Harvard Law School students supporting the presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and on October 24, 1988, Judge Wilkins introduced Rev. Jackson when he came to speak at a campus event supporting the presidential candidacy of Governor Michael Dukakis.”

A decade later, they met again: “On March 21, 1999, while an attorney, Judge Wilkins appeared as a guest on a show hosted by Rev. Jackson on the CNN network entitled Both Sides with Jesse Jackson to discuss a civil rights lawsuit in which Judge Wilkins was a plaintiff. Judge Wilkins believes that he has spoken to Rev. Jackson only on these two occasions, and he does not believe that he has ever met or spoken to the two defendants in these cases.”

In June 2001, Judge Wilkins appeared at a news conference held by Michigan’s Democratic Congressman John Conyers on the subject of the introduction of bipartisan legislation in both the House and Senate aimed at ending racial profiling. At the news conference, Wilkins told of an incident in 1992 when he and members of his family were returning in a rental car to D.C. from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago, when they were stopped for speeding by a Maryland State policeman.

As Wilkins recounted the experience:

“Instead of just writing my cousin—the driver—a ticket for speeding, the trooper tried to brow-beat us into signing a consent to search form, which would have given him permission to take out all of our luggage there on the side of the road and go through our personal belongings there in the rain.

“When we refused and cited our constitutional rights as American citizens, the trooper treated us as if we had something to hide. But because we refused to give our permission for this search we were detained and made to wait for a drug-sniffing dog to be brought to the scene. And we had to stand outside in the rain with the police lights flashing from the cars parked all around our vehicle with this dog climbing all over our car. And as people slowed down and drove past looking at us, looking at the dogs and the cars, and thinking that we must be criminals, we had no drugs and none were found. But the stain of this incident will live with me forever.

“And this happened, even though I identified myself as a lawyer and even though I told the trooper the name of the Supreme Court case he was violating.

“Well, fortunately with the ACLU and two local law firms, we were able to sue the Maryland State Police. And we forced them to adopt a non-discrimination policy, but more importantly this was the first lawsuit to require a statewide system of data collection of whom was being stopped and searched by race.”

It was that experience and Wilkins’s refusal to accept such treatment that prompted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a couple of years before, to invite Wilkins on his CNN show. On the March 21, 1999 edition, Wilkins—then chief of special litigation with the D.C. public defender’s office—told Jackson that he was stopped by the Maryland policeman because “…we were black and we were driving a rental car and we were on the highways in Maryland, and Mayland had a profile at that time… that told the troopers to target young African-Americans in rental cars.”  When Wilkins told the officer that that he preferred that he not search the car, the officer replied, Wilkins recalled, using his own words, “….if you’ve got nothing to hide then what’s your problem?”  

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