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On a bench known for being polite, William Wilkins Jr., the new chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, may be the courtliest of them all. He may come by it naturally, but some of it certainly was learned from former 4th Circuit Chief Judge Clement Haynsworth Jr., for whom Wilkins clerked in 1969 and 1970. “He had a great influence on me and on my legal career,” says Wilkins, who today sits in his hometown, Greenville, S.C. “He was a very thorough individual. He was extremely courteous to litigants and lawyers in the courtroom.” Wilkins is no less conservative or more apt to grant a habeas petition than are his fellow 4th Circuit jurists, but, says one attorney who has argued many criminal appeals before him, “he asks thoughtful questions. If you lose, you don’t simply get pummeled.” Wilkins steps into the role of chief judge just as two of his colleagues, former Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Judge J. Michael Luttig, are being floated as possible nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court. Wilkins, 60, has been down that road before, having been suggested for the high court during the Ronald Reagan and the first Bush administrations. For now, though, Wilkins is content to be the chief judge of a court that is a leading conservative judicial voice on many of the day’s top issues. (The Richmond, Va.-based 4th Circuit is the controlling appellate authority for federal cases in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.) The power conferred upon a chief judge at the appellate level is mostly symbolic: He does not decide which judges hear which cases. But the chief judge does represent the circuit’s interests in the Judicial Conference, the rule- and policy-making body of the federal judiciary. The chief also presides over the circuit’s Judicial Council and during en banc hearings. On a more quotidian basis, says former chief Wilkinson, the chief judge must review attorney fee vouchers, coordinate visiting judge assignments, and make sure the court runs smoothly. “Then there is the overall crisis manager role,” he says, for which Wilkins’ experience on the U.S. Sentencing Commission will come in handy. “Whenever any controversial matter comes up in this five-state area, you’re going to hear about it.” IN HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS Growing up in Greenville, Wilkins says, his earliest exposure to the law was through his father, Greenville attorney William Wilkins Sr. “I can remember hanging around his office as a young boy, and later on, he would take me to the courthouse and I would sit in the courtroom and watch the trials, particularly the criminal trials, as they were being conducted,” Wilkins says. “And I decided I wanted to become the district attorney.” He graduated from Davidson College and the University of South Carolina School of Law. He then spent two years on active duty in the U.S. Army before clerking for Haynsworth. From Haynsworth’s chambers, Wilkins joined the staff of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) as a legislative assistant. Thurmond has been his champion ever since. Wilkins returned to Greenville in 1971 and entered private practice. He finally made it to the prosecutor’s office, when he was elected solicitor for South Carolina’s 13th judicial circuit in 1973 and re-elected in 1978. With Thurmond’s backing, in 1981, Wilkins became the first federal judge appointed by President Reagan. It was also Thurmond who suggested Wilkins for the Supreme Court bench. Thurmond was unavailable to comment for this article, but his long-time chief of staff, Duke Short, notes that the former senator “considers Judge Billy Wilkins to be one of the finest judges he’s ever known.” In 1985, Wilkins took the helm of the nascent U.S. Sentencing Commission. He arrived in Washington to transform the way convicted federal criminals are sentenced in this country — a mandate vilified by many of his colleagues on the federal bench. Wilkins was not deterred by the condemnation of the commission’s work by judges and defense lawyers, nor by the clashing ideologies among his fellow commissioners. Somehow, the commission managed to produce a set of guidelines in 18 months. As one judge who supported the guidelines put it at the time, Wilkins was “unflappable.” And just six months into his nine-year tenure on the commission, Reagan appointed him to the 4th Circuit. “I had a full plate,” he says with a laugh. “I should have just said, ‘I’m going to have to take a leave of absence [from the bench until the guidelines are completed].’ But I said, ‘I’m going to try to do both.’ I was in Greenville or Washington or Richmond in a spin. And wherever I found myself, I needed to be somewhere else.” Sleep, he says, was something that happened on airplanes between cities. With 17 years on the bench since first heading the sentencing commission, Wilkins has seen the guidelines at work in thousands of cases. He reveals no desire to change the way the guidelines work, but he takes a stand against mandatory minimums, which are set by Congress. “I’ve seen many instances where the minimum was unnecessary and indeed defeated the purpose of the Sentencing Reform Act, that is, to provide a system of proportional punishment.” FROM THE BENCH In recent years, a couple of the more interesting cases to make a stop on Wilkins’ desk were the habeas petition of Yaser Esam Hamdi, and the sentencing of convicted drug dealer Marion Promise. With Hamdi, Wilkins, Wilkinson, and Judge William Traxler Jr. were faced with the question of whether war alters the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, was captured on an Afghan battlefield and has been held as an enemy combatant in a Norfolk, Va., brig since April 2002. In a decision written by the panel, the court dismissed the habeas petition: “Judicial review does not disappear during wartime, but the review of battlefield captures in overseas conflicts is a highly deferential one.” In the Promise case, the 4th Circuit issued an en banc decision upholding the 30-year prison term meted out to Promise, despite finding plain error in the sentencing. The court issued a splintered opinion, with several judges issuing partial concurrences and dissents. Wilkins delivered the court’s opinion, writing that his colleagues failed to acknowledge the “focus” of the discussion of the governing Supreme Court case, “which was that ‘[t]he judge’s role in sentencing is constrained at its outer limits by the facts alleged in the indictment and found by the jury.’ “ Wilkins declines to comment on the cases. He reveals, however, his thoughts on judicial restraint — the core of his conservative approach. His mentor, Chief Judge Haynsworth, “didn’t start out trying to reach a certain result,” Wilkins says. “He let the facts guide him to making a decision, and that’s how I think judges should approach decision-making.”

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