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Judge not– unless you’re J. Harvie Wilkinson

by Lisa Provence

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson admits he was disappointed he didn’t get the nod for the U.S. Supreme Court when his name was bandied about as a nominee in 2005 and he was interviewed by President George Bush. “For a little while, I really felt very sorry for myself,” Wilkinson told the audience at the UVA Law School March 28, and in fact, he enjoyed a brief wallow in self pity.

Then one day, “I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Jay, you make a hell of a poor victim,’” said the federal judge on the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Wilkinson, a UVA law grad/prof and Charlottesville resident, gave the Henry J. Abraham Distinguished Lectureship on “A View from the Bench” as part of the 14th Virginia Festival of the Book.

Wilkinson, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, said abortion or any other single issue should not be a litmus test for a federal judge. “I honestly don’t think we’re a partisan group,” he observed, while noting the skepticism that came from the Bush v. Gore decision, in which conservative justices ruled for Bush. “We just rule case by case.”

He said he’s never witnessed a judge swapping a ruling on one case in exchange for a vote on another. “There’s none of that horse trading one would see in the political process,” he said.

Although he’s a well-respected jurist, Wilkinson said, “My kids though it very boring that I wasn’t a firefighter.”

He acknowledged that being a judge is a “monastic” life, exemplified by his uniform. “Maryland has red robes,” he said. “They’re beautiful. Those of us with black robes envy them.”

The uniform of the black robe is not to bully or intimidate, Wilkinson said. “It’s to help me. It reminds me of our highest aspirations.”

And he urged his fellow jurists to think of those outside the court system and “not take our own sweet time” in rendering decisions, but to stress “promptness, courtesy, and consideration.”

Part of the monastic life of a judge is not being able to dine with friends if they have a case coming before him. Wilkinson tries to avoid running red lights, and if someone cuts in front of him in the line at the grocery, “As a judge, you do not want to create a scene,” he said.

Even though he estimated that those who sit on the bench could be making 10 times their salaries in private practice, there’s one very real perk when someone asks him to help raise money: “It’s a relief– I’m ethically prohibited from fundraising,” he confided to the Law School crowd.

In the 24 years since he’s been on the bench, “I encountered a world I never dreamed of,” he said. He cited the impact of the Internet, AIDS, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Who could have anticipated 9-11 and the questions that came from that horrible day?”

And with issues such as bioethics, pandemics, and global warming, he ponders what judges will have to deal with in 2030.

Despite the monastic life and financial sacrifice of the legal giants who sit on the bench, Wilkinson has no regrets about how his role helps others. “It’s a good feeling when you put your head on the pillow or drive home,” he said.


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